Wonder wall: Lascaux IV by Snøhetta and Casson Mann

Q&A with Snøhetta’s Kjetil Thorsen

Blueprint: How did you develop the form of the building and what were the main design ideas for Lascaux IV?

Kjetil Thorsen: There was a series of parameters that we were looking at once we started looking for the cut in the landscape, which is basically the line. The edge of the building curves and follows the sun’s path. We took this no-man’s-land position in the transition between forest and agricultural land and turned that into a building. We had to find a precise insertion that not only embraces the field through the circle but also reflects the movement of the landscape in the sense that it felt natural in the way it was located, so the building didn’t look like an extension of the landscape but a natural integration.

Snøhetta’s Kjetil ThorsenSnøhetta’s Kjetil Thorsen

Several of your buildings can be walked over, they become part of the landscape. What is the thinking behind that?

We’ve been looking at architecture as some sort of art of prepositions. If you think of architecture as an object, it is only readable in relation to where your body is, so your body might be over, behind, in front of, under or beside it. Maybe walking on the building is one proposition of importance. You can say that sitting on something means that it’s easier for you to have the feeling that you’re on the thing you’re sitting on, than if you’re not sitting on it, so similarly the public ownership element is a lot about the intimacy between the public, the visitors, the people working there and the object. We think that intimacy can be increased by how you relate the body to the spaces and the object.

Shallow steps provide a route over the building’s roof for a unique perspective. Image Credit: Boegly + Grazia PhotographersShallow steps provide a route over the building’s roof for a unique perspective. Image Credit: Boegly + Grazia Photographers

And that’s perhaps particularly powerful in this building because it’s all about the visitor’s movement through a cave from lightness to darkness. How do you hope the architecture contributes to that visitor journey?

When we actually accepted this journey, from the outside into the building, you take the lift up, and you go outside, you get blinded somehow, and slowly you adapt as you move into the cave and come into this dark space, then coming out into the light courtyard and being blinded again — there’s a slowness in adapting to different light conditions. Simply the typology of moving in and out of different spaces in the museum generates a certain consciousness because your eyes have to move with you. The architecture is then a sequence of spaces, indoor and outdoor, that are part of the whole experience.

If this is a copy of the caves, why does the museum need to be in this particular location? Could it be anywhere?

By chance this valley developed a cave community, and the cave we’ve copied is not the only one. There’s this series of very early urbanism along the Dordogne valley. It would feel unnatural to try to locate it elsewhere.

Shallow steps provide a route over the building’s roof for a unique perspective. Image Credit: Boegly + Grazia PhotographersShallow steps provide a route over the building’s roof for a unique perspective. Image Credit: Boegly + Grazia Photographers

In the future, with the development of VR, will there be a need for museums like this?

I feel quite strongly about the analogue experience and I think the mix between the two is preferable. It will take some time before we’re really into this full and total embodied experience of reality through technology, I think we’ll have to be happy with reality for now.

Do you use VR in your own design process?

Yes, absolutely. You have to find tools that will bring you as close as possible to the real experience that you’re dealing with, although I have to say that it doesn’t always happen the way you expect either. You discover coincidences in buildings that you didn’t know of. It could be the light coming through a window in exactly one point in time, which you hadn’t envisaged in whatever studies you did. So I’m continuously a little bit surprised about things I find in our buildings.

It appears that your buildings often reference natural forms: SFMOMA looks almost like an iceberg for instance; the Opera House in Oslo appears like a glacier; Lascaux has moments where it references a fissure or crevasse. Is that a conscious decision?

Not really. It’s left to the visitor to interpret the way they want. I think it’s important to say that we consider these things as architectures not as landscapes. We don’t consider them abstract landscapes because in a way they’re new realities. That said we consider ourselves as contextual conceptualists, which basically means we draw experience from what we see and what we feel out of the surroundings. We’re not a style driven company, we’re value based and content driven.

That means that many different buildings can get many different forms depending on where they are in the world and the context. We quite freely use references that we find enchanting from the different situations that we try to work within, so with MOMA some people have called it an iceberg, but for us it’s more like a cut of the San Francisco fog. Interpretations are open, or you might not interpret it at all and just enjoy it, or maybe you’re just remembering that you forgot to buy milk. It’s not the main issue; the main issue is what it does to you once it’s there.

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