Spotlight: Craig Dykers

School News

Spotlight: Craig Dykers

February 13, 2017

As one of the Founding Partners of Snøhetta, Craig has led many of Snøhetta’s prominent projects internationally, including the Alexandria Library in Egypt, the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway, the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion in New York City, and the recently completed Ryerson University Student Learning Centre in Toronto, Canada, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Expansion in San Francisco. Craig is currently leading the design of the new Times Square Reconstruction in New York City and The French Laundry Kitchen Expansion and Garden Renovation in Yountville, both of which are currently under construction.


Craig's work has led to numerous international awards and recognitions including the Mies van der Rohe European Union Prize for Architecture, the World Architecture Award, and the Aga Kahn Award for Architecture, among many others.


Published internationally for over 25 years, Craig has most recently been profiled in The New Yorker (2013), The New York Times (2014), and The Globe and Mail (2015), while the practice has also been published in an Arquitectura Viva Monograph (2015) and nominated by Fast Company Magazine as one of the ten most innovative architecture companies in the world (2013).


Craig has served as a Diploma Adjudicator at the Architectural College in Oslo and in recent years has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Syracuse University, Cornell University, Parsons and Washington University in St. Louis. He has lectured extensively throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Manufacturers, a LEED accredited professional, and a member of the American and Norwegian Institutes of Architects


How did you get started on your journey in architecture?

Well, I have no architects in my family and I’m one of the first in my family to go to university and graduate. My father and mother were of very modest means. My father grew up during the depression and my mother lived in London during the Blitz.


I was somewhat lost when I went to university. I was in pre-med and because I had skills in drawing, they recommended that I take some art classes and study anatomical illustration. Interestingly, my father has always been a lover of art even though he had no formal education. He didn’t even graduate from high school but he used to take me to art museums all the time and was very interested in modern art.


I was quite happy in the art school and found a road for my future. I talked to my father about it and his response was, well, you probably won’t do well because any artist worth his salt would never ask his father what he thought about it, which is an interesting comment! So he said, you’re interested in art and you’re interested in science, why don’t you try architecture? He ended by saying that an architect would probably ask his father what his opinion was. It’s an interesting insight into those two worlds.


So I entered the architecture school and as soon as I got my first assignment I stayed up for the first three or four days without sleeping.


What school did you attend?

My father was an NCO in the Army and he retired in San Antonio, Texas. So that gave me in-state tuition because they didn’t have any money to pay for my education. I had to work my way through. So the in-state tuition for Texas was very good and the University of Texas at Austin was where I went. It turned out to be a very interesting school that taught quite a lot of handicraft and technical thinking. Landscape was very important in Austin at the time.


I moved to Los Angeles just after graduating and worked for various architects. I worked for Frank Israel. Coy Howard was actually most important to me. Then I set up my own little shop. I didn’t have a license and I was afraid I might not get work so I called my company “Group of Designers” implying there was more than one person. We weren’t allowed to call ourselves architects. The title block on our drawings said “GOD” which was very funny.


In LA, I told myself I was going to try and do something without a Master’s degree and without insurance. The insurance was the first thing to fall. Then I got a license.


So while I lived in Los Angeles, I had some friends, one of whom was an Austrian who was teaching at USC named Christoph Kappeller. He and I had talked about doing the Library of Alexandria competition and he had some friends in Norway. We all thought, why don’t we do it all together. It was a significant competition and the program was very expensive, very complex. So it seemed obvious that young kids like ourselves couldn’t do it alone. So we just joined forces with some other young kids and made a loose association.


We were in Koreatown, near a street called Alexandria, not far from USC. We delivered the competition, and then went on about our lives since we knew at that time that 1,400 people had registered, though only about 520 were being judged. But when you know that 1,400 people have entered, you don’t count on winning, so we went on about our lives.


When we won, we all met up again and set up our office together in Norway. There were already a group of people who had a loose studio there called Snøhetta. It wasn’t a formal company, but we thought it was better than “GOD” so we formed a new company with that name and that’s the company we have today, based on that competition.


So then you moved to Norway?

Yes, and I’ve lived there until just recently. My wife and I work together—she was also part of the competition. Both of us are American and we have family who are getting old so we had to do something to get closer to them. So we entered the competition for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site, another one which seems impossible to win, and at the time, we were practically unknown in the United States.


Interestingly we had misread the delivery date. We thought we had three months to do the project delivery and it was actually only three days. So we did the whole thing in three days and sent it off. Then we got a call that said we were in the final round. So we won that competition and that allowed us to start a studio in New York City.  


San Francisco is a city I’ve always loved and it seems like a link between California and our thinking, so we established a studio in San Francisco after we won the competition for SF MOMA.


Where are you based now?

I live in Brooklyn. I also travel quite a bit and when I flew in the other day, I always joke I’m afraid I’m going to meet myself at the airport.


So you and your partners are constantly traveling?

Yeah, we try to keep it condensed so we have time in the studios but it’s a challenge because we have always been a somewhat nomadic group. We are a strange collection of countries and cultures. We didn’t have connections to schools that have wide network structures so we couldn’t rely on clients from the hometown. I don’t think it’s healthy, to be honest. Settling in, focusing on a place and being in a place is very very important. It’s just not a root that our company has been able to establish and as a result we’ve become very empathetic as people.


I’ve moved all my life every two or three years because my father was in the military. In the military you move every couple of years so just when you’re making friends, you’d have to make new ones. So you learn how to meet people and how to merge your interests with theirs, learn from others, and how to express your opinion to others. That’s one of the values of being nomadic.


That’s interesting that that would be one of your strengths, to be able go anywhere and quickly assess the needs of people and respond in a way that resonates with them.

I sometimes say I always feel at home wherever I am as long as I’m on the back of the bus, so you can see everything going on. One thing to be sure, we’re not sponges per se. I think the word empathy has been abused a bit of late, like collaboration. You say it, it sounds good and everyone’s happy. I think what we prefer to say is we like to take reality by surprise which is a Francis Bacon quote I’ve always enjoyed.


People become used to where they are. We’re able to immerse ourselves in where they are and take a step back and provide new eyes and a new approach based on where they are. Sometimes we joke that it’s better to want what you get than get what you want.


When you’re designing, what is your approach?

Apparently I’m in the range of 2,000 years old, so I use a pencil. I like to draw and get physical. Not everybody is as good with those things but I try to move back and forth between the digital world and the analog world. But since I’m of an older generation, I’m still working often in very quick sketches. When I was younger that was how I made my money, as a renderer for architects in LA. At the time, computers were just coming on line and I was very fast. Even faster than the computers, so for a long time people were racing me against the computer. And then one year I lost.


But I’m still quite fast, and I still enjoy working quickly with pen and ink. I often use blue, ballpoint, felt tip, or acrylic. I was at the American Academy in Rome two years ago and I was sketching. They were published in Italy. All these weird blue acrylic sketches.


I like to draw standing up. When I’m working on architecture professionally, I tend to sit down though I do occasionally stand up. But most of the time when I’m alone, I’ll stand up.


Are you more of an intuitive designer, or as a firm do you do a lot of research?

We should all spend a great deal of time zooming in at the challenge at hand. Looking very carefully at the site, the areas around the site, the invisible context, things that aren’t quite obvious when you’re there, as well as the obvious. So there’s time getting to know things directly.


I personally don’t like to call it research because I think that’s another one of those words that is slightly abused. These days, research for many people is, "well, I downloaded this from the internet". Or they’ll find a picture of a building they like and they’ll download it and stick it up and say, here’s a building that I like. There’s not a lot of development of the research. So zooming in is one of the things we talk about.


Then we like to zoom out. So once you get familiar with the proximity of things, then we try to go off on tangents. I like to say it’s important to read a book, maybe literature that might add some value to the topic at hand. Or see a show, or just get out of your headspace and look back.


Putting those two things together leads you to the capacity of generating ideas. And that means that you will be both intuitive and pragmatic.


Speaking of books, what are your reading now?

I was reading a new book by Noam Chomsky on language, a part of a trilogy on the nature of being human. Another is Jane Jacobs’ last interviews.


There’s also a lot of good new music coming out.


So what kind of music do you like? And are you an audiophile or collector?

I started going back in time. Sometimes you get a little retro, so I went way back to the 70s to a band called Mahavishnu Orchestra. They did a bunch of albums. I am listening to Adia Victoria, I think she is from Nashville… good sound and powerful… contemporary. Also, I have just started a book called The Curse of Beauty about the life of Audrey Munson.


Also, I picked up an album of Alice Coltrane’s the other day and it was vinyl. I have a good friend and artist named Jose Parla whom we work with often and he’s an audiophile maniac and he’s really become a good source of music. I don’t have a record player anymore but I’m considering getting one again.


What kind of advice do you have for students?

I’ve always found it’s important to have a wide sense of knowledge across multiple fields of interest. Once I was asked to give a commencement speech for the school I went to in Austin and the first words out of my mouth were, I know you’ve been studying very hard for a long time to get here but actually architecture is close to useless. And everybody kind of guffawed, so I said that’s because architecture requires fuel which is the fuel of life. And architecture in and of itself is like grammar: it’s just a tool. And a great author who writes great literature doesn’t just understand English, or the language they speak. Without it being informed by a wide range of interests and various understandings of life, it will remain forever a technical discussion and that is all.


I think it’s important for students to go out to different schools, go to the geology department and look at their library, go to the medical school and hang out there and see what things are going on. And go out into the world and see what’s happening out there. Also just hang out on the street and watch people for several hours. Take a yoga class. Do anything that is not just talking about architecture all day. And this will make your work better. ■