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Get to Know Snøhetta, the Architecture Firm Behind the New SFMOMA Expansion

Elaine Molinar, managing director of Snøhetta North America, talks about some of the firm's memorable American commissions

With the recent opening of its new SFMOMA Expansion, global architecture firm Snøhetta has found itself at the center of the excitement surrounding the next chapter of the classic Mario Botta building. With roots in Oslo, Norway, the firm has traditionally been associated with a Scandinavian approach that mixes practical planning and Modernist artistry, evident in the dramatic, wavy white facade and new gallery layout that expands SFMOMA’s footprint despite a constricted urban site.

But as the SFMOMA opening, and other current and forthcoming projects, suggest, the firm has also adjusted to its American presence.

"You can’t transfer a Scandinavian practice to the U.S. as an exact replica, you have to adapt," says Elaine Molinar, partner and managing director of North America.

Based on the projects it’s completed in the last dozen years that reflect their environment, from forward-thinking libraries to iconic spaces in New York City (the September 11th Museum and a redesign of Times Square), it appears to have adapted well. Curbed spoke to Molinar about some of the firms bigger U.S. projects, to learn about Snøhetta's multidisciplinary design philosophy and the stories behind their work.

James B. Hunt Jr. Library (Raleigh, North Carolina: 2013)

"It’s a project that’s had a great impact on our practice. I think what we learned doing university work is that it has an enormous impact. We worked with students who were the first in their family to attend college. It’s really had an enormous, beneficial, effect on the campus. It was an incredibly collaborative process between us and the client. The librarian had an amazing vision; she wanted it to be the best university library."

"The physical form resulted from many different factors. First, it was a peculiar, long, and narrow site. We decided to put many of the two million books in a high-density retrieval system, all in the building, which means real estate can be devoted to people. Learning has evolved. That meant the library had to be a different model. The project also showed the value of our design thinking; we’re a diverse team with a broad perspective."

September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion (New York City, NY: 2014)

"We started this in 2004, which as fairly soon after September 11. Initially, we weren’t sure about submitting for the project at all. It felt like something New York should deal with in a way, and we were not all convinced we should do something. But a structural engineer we work with in New York said it’s worth pursuing, and that it would have cultural facilities on the grounds. We felt good about that. In our qualifications, we almost missed the deadline. We transposed the days and the months, due to the way you write dates in Europe. We thought we had an extra three or four weeks, and only had three or four hours."

"The general public and family members all had a strong need to be heard and voice their opinions, and it’s very important to listen and hear all that information, and assimilate that into your work and design thinking. Every project is complex, this one more than many others There were multiple stakeholders, it was a crazily complex building site, and things always get tough during projects like that. But you need to remember the purpose, and why you’re doing it."

"It’s still hard for me to get my head around it, because September 11 is still a tough thing for so many people. I realized seeing people there on opening day, they were happy, the families, had a place to go, and their loved ones finally had a place to be. It was a very touching experience."

Times Square Reconstruction (New York City, New York: Expected Completion 2016)

"It’s one of the most iconic public spaces in the world, the most highly trafficked. It’s synonymous with New York. Whatever you do, Times Square doesn’t need more, it doesn’t need more color, lights, or people. It needs less, it needs to be toned down. We wanted to design a place where people could more easily navigate through their environment. To understand that, you need to understand how crowds move and navigate through the space. Our approach is one of clarification and simplification, clarifying what belongs to the public and where traffic should be. It’s a prioritization of public space for the pedestrian. It’s turning chaotic intersections into an area with a sense of place, where you as a pedestrian know where you belong."

Temple University Library (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Expected 2018)

"University libraries are important to our practice. They continue to evolve, and are shaped by students, teachers, and librarians, as well as technology. Libraries were historically places to discuss and debate ideas. We’ve lost the connection to physical activity, which used to be part of the layout of libraries. With the physical space devoted to information storage decreasing over time, you have more freedom to create environments that are conducive to many different ways of being in your environment. It’s an interesting thing to study."

Moss Arts Center at Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, Virginia: 2014)

"We took the acoustic requirements and criteria very seriously. If you can’t make them as perfect as possible, the room isn’t a success, no matter what the architecture tells you. If the acoustics aren’t great, you’ve missed an opportunity. The design of this venue was a direct result of what the acoustics require. There are long wispy forms in the ceiling to maximize the volume. The lines also direct your eyes to the stage."

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