Snøhetta is a brooding, four-peaked mountain that looms over the rock fields of central Norway, where musk ox and reindeer graze.
Snøhetta is also the name of the Norwegian architecture firm that designed Oslo’s opera house, a sloped ice shelf of a building that appears to be either rearing from the fjord or melting back into it. Ever since it opened in 2008, I have been captivated by the way this most urbane of buildings, built on an abandoned industrial site in the middle of a major city, can merge so seamlessly with the landscape. I have the sense that Norway cultivates a unique architectural sensibility, merging design with ubiquitous wilderness. If architects learn as much from forests and fjords as they do from studying Le Cor- busier, then perhaps those lessons leach into their urban structures too.
“There’s a side to Norwegians that are oblivious to nature—they’ll stick an ugly parking lot in the middle of some amazing landscape,” says Craig Dykers, one of the architect-founders of Snøhetta. “But you also find some really interesting works where it’s difficult to tell what’s a building and what’s landscape. The crossover is remarkable.” It’s clear that to understand where the opera house’s fusion of artifice and nature came from, I’d have to head into untamed country.
My journey begins in the landlocked Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park, at the spot where one Snøhetta peak faces the other. I drive past a lonely former military base and hike a mile to a treeless plateau opposite the mythic mountain. There, the architects have placed a simple but exquisite one-room shelter with weathering steel sides and a glass wall for viewing stone, snow, brush, and, if you’re lucky, reindeer.
The Norwegian Wild Reindeer Pavilion, as it’s officially called, is a tough structure in a hard place, but its spirit is romantic, thanks to a rippled wall of rough-cut pine that flows into benches both inside and out. The woodwork evokes both Norway’s ship-building history and its elaborate medieval stave churches. Only a robot could have figured out how to mill the hundreds of distinct boards, and only a human carpenter could have pegged them together.
As a critic, I spend a lot of time touring complexes that are compromised by too much money, too many trade-offs, and too many agendas. Here I encounter something small and sublime, a building perfectly adapted to its setting.
All up and down the serrated coast, castle-like cliffs border cobalt waters, and old farms decay on soft green mounds scattered among the rocks. To make a mark on terrain this wild is a terrible responsibility for a thinking architect, yet Snøhetta is far from the only Norwegian firm to take on that challenge. And so I head far north, to the Lofoten archipelago, where snow-streaked mountains and glowering cliffs plunge to meet the sea. I’m told the weather can be mild, but during my midsummer visit, a frigid wind scours the rocks and a tight weave of clouds rips apart now and then to reveal operatic shafts of sunlight. Building here is an extreme proposition. Fishermen’s cabins have been clinging like urchins to these rocky shores for centuries. Whole schools of dead cod hang on wooden frames to dry, elevated above the surf.
I’ve arrived here via a silken highway that arcs from island to island, over rearing causeways or through tunnels beneath the fjords. The Norwegian Public Roads Administration has ornamented the route with artfully planned viewpoints that turn rest stops into destinations. Buildings typically separate indoors from nature and keep the weather out. Here, I find architecture that draws people outdoors and offers just a few minutes’ worth of partial shelter and a wordless exhortation: Look at that!
My first stop in Lofoten is a dramatic outcropping at Eggum, where the ruins of a German radar station left over from World War II survey the shore, pummeled by an Arctic wind. At its feet, Snøhetta has piled stones into a second circular enclosure with stepped bleachers, more tiny theater than fortress. A small rectangular café pokes out from the perimeter onto the flat deck like a stage. The site has a miniaturized, dollhouse quality in that setting of epic panoramas, as if the gods acted out their dramas on clouds and glinting cliffs and we humans strutted and fretted on a punier scale.
It’s hard to divine why this structure is even here on this rugged headland, or why an international firm would bother with a glorified parking lot, café, and toilet combo. But such “keyless structures,” to use Snøhetta’s term, express Norwegians’ allemannsretten, or “right to roam,” an ancient principle enshrined in the 1957 Outdoor Recreation Act. Anyone can hike, camp, forage (with some exceptions, like cloudberries), or just roll out a sleeping bag in open country, which is to say just about everywhere except the roughly five percent of the nation that is arable or urbanized.
Norway’s most prestigious architectural figure, Sverre Fehn (who died in 2009), once pointed out that “in Norway, nature is the norm, whereas in many other places it is the cultivated land that people take for granted.” The classic rural building is not a farmhouse presiding over orderly acres of cropland, but a battered shed. The 19th-century artist Johan Christian Dahl, whose works hang in Oslo’s National Gallery, captured these simple wooden structures huddling beneath cliffs and peaks, perpetually on the verge of obliteration. He could return today and paint almost exactly the same scenes.
In the mid-1990s, Norway’s architectural talents acquired global resonance: Fehn won the international Pritzker Prize in 1997, and Snøhetta, then a collection of young upstarts, won the competition to replace the lost Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, with a new design. Those two jolts of prestige prompted the government to start treating architecture as a national resource. Norway’s roadways authority launched the Norwe- gian Scenic Routes program with nearly $500 million to spend over 35 years.
The idea was to turn the nation’s most extreme places into navigable attractions, boosting tourism, urging Norwegians to see their own country, and using design to give travelers access to the wilderness all around. Open competitions encouraged young architects to get involved; winning a project could establish a career, since it demonstrated an ability to reconcile mood with prosaic function, durability with spectacle. From a pilot project in the mid-1990s, the program has grown to 18 routes, with dozens of built projects linked by roads so exquisitely engineered and maintained that they practically become poetry.
“There’s so much natural beauty that you don’t always pay attention to it,” says Dykers. “A landscape can be difficult to see. Place an object in that landscape and now you see it in a different, more focused way.”
A short, wet drive takes me back to Lofoten’s main highway, the E16, and I pull into the Torvdalshalsen parking lot just as the rain abates, allowing me to imagine (though not actually want) an outdoor lunch. Here, 70°N Arkitektur, a small firm based in the Arctic city of Tromsø, has installed a catwalk of weathered slats that shoots straight out toward a gray-green vista of water, cloud, peak, and moor. A partition wall divides the tables from the parking lot, so that picnickers can stay focused on nature while they snack. Even empty, there’s a syncopated dance in the play of decks and ramps, tables and banquettes, and the whole arrangement steps down so that nobody can block anyone else’s view.
The drivers, RV roamers, and tour bus passengers who pass this way hardly register this place as architecture at all. But because a team of designers has fussed over the pathway from parking spot to overlook, and considered how the sun sets and shadows fall—because someone has cared for every detail—travelers feel a sense of harmoniousness and drama that they cannot necessarily pinpoint.
The road meanders southwest, and brings me to another rest stop at Akkarvikodden, a winning collaboration between two Olso-based firms, Manthey Kula and Landskapsfabrikken AS. The terrace is exquisitely minimalist: a smooth platform with gray concrete tables and black granite benches arranged at various angles so that you can select your view from different proportions of boulder and wave. The bathrooms are housed in his-and-hers mini-mountains made of weathering steel, with angled glass roofs that negotiate the perfect compromise between daylight and privacy.
It’s 10 p.m. and the sky’s still bright when I reach Nusfjord, a fishing village so perfectly picturesque in its isolation that it has been turned into a living museum and down-home resort. Exploring the quiet town, I come across a set of astonishing wooden dunes inserted into the rock behind the hotel. This, it turns out, is an outdoor spa, an undulating latticework that enfolds a hot tub and a sauna and invites guests to lie out in the northern sun. The lightweight but sturdy structure, capable of absorbing a storm’s body blow, resembles solidified spume and softened rock at the same time. Later, I find an online time-lapse video of the nearly five weeks it took students at the Oslo School of Architecture & Design to build the structure by hand in 2013, and I’m heartened that designing a border zone between deep waters and high crags is part of the curriculum.
From Lofoten, I make my circuitous way south to a completely different part of Norway: Route 63, a well-traveled feat of extreme engineering that links the Geirangerfjord with the Romsdalfjord over the Trollstigen Pass. Here, as in much of the country, the shortest distance between two fjords is a ribbon of switchbacks. Vertical ravines are pin-striped with waterfalls, patches of snow hold out into the summer months, and if you pick the right boulder to perch on, you can see straight down to sea level. If there is a landscape that would seem to need no human interference, this is it. And yet even here, architects and the Public Roads Administration have stepped in to make the journey more splendid.
At Gudbrandsjuvet, in a valley just before the road heads skyward, the small firm of Jensen & Skodvin has floated a delicate bridge over a hidden gorge. The architects married rusted and shiny steel into a two-toned catwalk that winds through the woods, barely touch- ing the ground. Railings resemble woven branches, and benches dodge around roots and tree trunks so that if you removed the whole apparatus it would leave hardly a scar. A quietly spectacular café with glassed-in private corners overlooks the falls.
Eventually, I tear myself from this idyllic spot and push the car up an alarming incline. Trollstigen means Troll’s Ladder, and I can almost hear the creatures cackling as tour buses jockey on the narrow bends. The payoff is the pass, a bleak spot with a view exquisitely choreographed by Reiulf Ramstad Architects. First comes the visitor center, a pair of slender concrete wedges that stretch up and out like butterfly wings toward the nearby peaks. Glass walls make the roof appear to levitate, and the whole weightless structure hovers above a series of terraced pools, where water takes a few slow, measured steps before hurling itself down the cliff- side. Visitors are invited to get out of their cars and walk along a comfortable ramp to a balcony that’s cantilevered far out into the open sky.
A simple runway might have done the trick, but Reiulf Ramstad’s design is full of subtleties that sharpen the sense of majesty, without drawing attention to themselves. One prow juts toward a waterfall on the opposite slope, while another points toward the fjord nearly 2,300 feet below. An upper terrace with a concrete wall comforts those who suffer from vertigo, while a glass-walled break in the steel-sided platform lets children take in the plummeting view without having to crane over the sides. The whole jagged composition of ramp, railing, and lookout has a rough elegance powerful enough to hold its own with the nature it serves.
Reiulf Ramstad has become a specialist in landscape-inspired architecture. The firm also designed the visitor center at the base of Trollveggen, a 5,900-foot- high wall of solid gneiss that shoots up from the Rauma River, tempting rock climbers, BASE jumpers, and paragliders. The center is black, pointy, and reflective, as if a shard of granite had broken off and embedded itself in the valley floor. A few miles away, the firm plunked a little man- made sierra in the middle of Åndalsnes to serve as the region’s Mountaineering Center, a dramatic but somewhat clumsy way to link the town with the nature all around. But you have to travel farther south to see its most graceful fusion of geological and architectural forms.
In the village of Knarvik, the firm fashioned a contemporary version of a stave church, an elegant arrangement of origami-like planes converging on a bell tower with a tip so sharpened it could spear a low- flying cloud.house, which looks different to me now. I linger over the wavy walls of oak wood, the ceilings that incline, forming overhangs and quasi-caves. A shadeless hike leads up to the roof, over an unpredictable surface of smooth stones and rough steps. The white-clad plaza out front dips into the water. I recall Dykers telling me: “We don’t always do this, but at the opera house, we decided to merge landscape and architecture because all traces of the natural terrain had been removed over decades, if not centuries. The connection to the water was lost.” And Snøhetta wanted to restore it. Suddenly, this building strikes me as more than a theater or an urban public space; it’s an architectural distillation of Norway itself.
Snøhetta and other Scenic Routes architects have worked in big cities, sometimes for ruthlessly efficient developers, but they do sometimes manage to smuggle their mountain-honed sensibilities into dense downtowns. Reiulf Rams- tad (in collaboration with C.F. Møller) recently won a commission for a mixed-use tower rising above Oslo’s Central Train Station. Even on the upper floors, it will be threaded through with public areas, trees, and artfully positioned viewpoints. My mind drifts to another Snøhetta work that mixes the high-tech and the handmade in a completely different context and on a much vaster scale: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The recent extension is wrapped in a white, rippled skin that looks as loose and alive as elk hide, and the climb from floor to floor echoes an outdoor trek, a sequence of winding stairs, canyon walls, and sudden surprise views onto the city outside. The echoes are not coincidental, Dykers says. “Climbing a mountain is very similar to the task of designing a building. You see the trail and you think you’re getting to the top. And then you realize there are another valley and another mountain ahead of you. You never know when you’re actually done.”