Snøhetta and Alvar Aalto: The Social Democratic Heritage in Architecture

Scandinavian architecture has been associated with straight lines, tranquility and democracy. Further, it has tried to define itself as a social democratic architecture, from the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, over Arne Jacobsen and BIG, to the Norwegian Snøhetta. Claiming to have the same political frame, their works differentiate widely in form and size. What does social democratic architecture mean – and how does it look today?

Operahuset in Oslo; an icy rock in the middle of a capital in growth, an architectural culmination of the Oslofjord. This summer I visited its home town, slowly sailing into a harbour surrounded by a mix of rocky mountains and glass office buildings. Operahuset does not catch the eye at first, then to appears to you as the quiet link between land and water, glass and rock. In the end, Operahuset is the only thing you notice.


The building was designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta arkitektur landskap A/S in 2007 and continuing style of the magnificent Library of Alexandria. It is Snøhetta’s first building in their home country and apart from the national recognition, it has gained international renommée winning both the Mies van der Rohe Award and 1st Prize by the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona.


Further, Operahuset figures as the flagship of Snøhetta’s architectural understanding. In it’s adaption to nature, the building creates a metamorphosis between construct and mountain, glas and sky. With the continuous lines from sea to top, it gives what partner Kjertil Trædal Thorsen explains as not copies of landscapes, but memories of landscapes. As an architect, he justifies, you cannot copy the masterpieces of the nature, instead you can reinvent and complement its expressions. Snøhetta searches for “borderline situations”; where nature fusions and sky, water and ground meet each other. And one must say that Operahuset definitely can be called this sort of borderliner.

Thorsen points out that architecture has to be open to change as well as dictate change. As landscapes change in color, light and appearance according to time of year, architecture should be able to embody these. Yet, not in the same scale. Again, we are (merely) talking about memories of landscapes. Claiming that architecture should dictate change, Thorsen refers to the idea of social democratic architecture. He sees Snøhetta as promoter for a social sustainability and the nordic model in which inclusion and dialogue figure as keywords. Snøhetta therefore makes political architecture.

Quotes are taken from following video. For a more thorough insight into the philosophy and the work of Snøhetta see this video published by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (DK):øhetta-memories-architectural-landscapes


The Heritage from Aalto

When Thorsen uses the term social democratic architecture, he intersects with a long scandinavian tradition that has roots in the nordic economic model and its idea of the welfare state. Furthermore, he connects Snøhetta with a long tradition of architectural expression wanting to embody this model visually.

These ideas express themselves on the roof of Operahuset. As when hiking, one can climb the opera and relax on its top. Symbolically, one physically appropriates a in the tradition high cultural institution. It is now a place for everyone: The frequent opera guests but also e.g. teenagers. And true enough, on my journey up the opera, I meet several teenagers hanging out and even dancing. Architecture is for Snøhetta not only a place for people with money but through its structure for everyone interested.

Furthermore, designing the upper part in primarily glass gives a transparency to a, according to Thorsen himself, a rather closed cultural world. Using the opportunity, The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet has even arranged events on the terrace of the opera.

The Finnish Alvar Aalto  (1898-1976) was one of the first scandinavian architects verbalizing the idea of a social democratic architecture. With his works counting the Paimio Sanatorium in Paimio, Finland and KUNSTEN in Aalborg, Denmark, he wanted to create a Gesamtkunstwerk presenting a total design, from chairs to tiles. In their interiors, his buildings embody change but instead of dictating change, they offer possibilities of change. He explains the situation and process as a biological one:

„Ich möchte hinzufügen, dass die Architektur und ihre Details in gewisser Weise mit der Biologie in Verbindung stehen. Sie sind vielleicht wie große Lachse oder Forellen. Sie werden nicht reif geboren, sie werden nicht einmal in dem Meer oder Gewässer geboren, in dem sie normalerweise leben. Sie werden viele hundert Meilen von ihrer eigentlichen Lebensumgebung entfernt geboren… so weit von ihrer normalen Umgebung entfernt, wie das geistige Leben des Menschen und seine Instinkte von seiner täglichen Arbeit entfernt sind. Und wie die Entwicklung des Fischeis zum ausgereiften Organismus Zeit braucht, so braucht alles Zeit, was sich in unserer Welt des Denkens entwickelt und kristallisiert. Die Architektur benötigt diese Zeit noch in stärkerem Ausmaß als jede andere schöpferische Arbeit“ (Kenneth Frampton: Die Architektur der Moderne. Eine kritische Baugeschichte (München 2010))

Aalto describes architecture as an organism that grows and develops over time and applies architecture to an organic dimension. As Snøhetta, he was inspired by nature but rather than memorizing landscapes, he extracts and emphasizes its details. He creates a total organism which can infuse with its surroundings. It is therefore not created as a memory of but as a supplement to nature. With his clean and straight lines, he wants to create a Now that embraces both past and future.

Snøhetta wants to distort and recreate the Now. When doing that you have to tilt the ground on which you stand; you have to tilt your horizon. By means of pictures, Thorsen here offers a reflection on today’s hermeneutics of architecture. To understand other cultural horizons, as well as your own, one has to be taken out of balance before regaining ground and seeing everything from a new perspective.

Compared with Aalto, who in his own method sympathized with the hermeneutic idea, Snøhetta tilts and Aalto frames. Aalto was trying to fuse the metaphysical and the nature by creating a frame in which the human being and architecture could develop; or, even grow as a plant. One could say, he leaves the initiative for development to the user while Snøhetta always takes the first step. In this way, the Norwegian company creates a playful and interactive architecture. Where democratic architecture before was meant for the user and nature only, it maybe now involves the designer, user and nature and tries to create an understanding across these; an all-inclusive architecture.

Social democratic architecture today can be said to include social sustainability and interaction as it in the past rather was a sanctuary and a platform from which you could meet the world. Without conducting an extensive political analysis, one could reflect on, if the political idea and gestalt of social democracy have moved in the same direction? From withdrawn to active.

IMG_1527Technically, one could criticize the term democratic. The way to accomplish the social democratic architecture of today goes through digital processes. In the above video, it shows that everything is drawn by digitally, among other CAD. Digital design is truly a democratic tool, but still an inaccessible one for the most of the citizens. The result hereof is that the architect yet again becomes a professional and distant figure in the democratic triangle of the new social democratic architecture. Is the new social democratic architecture digital? And do we need computers to move closer to nature  – and to each other?

Yet again without the extensive survey, maybe Snøhetta not only memorizes landscapes but also the social – digital – structure of modern society?

All photo rights reserved by Sofie Krogh Christensen


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