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Kjetil Tr�dal Thorsen: A Norwegian visionary
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 03 - 12 - 2009

is the Norwegian architect who designed the interior and exterior of the world-renowned Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which won the Houens Fond Diploma Prize and the Aga Khan Prize. He has also won awards for a number of other buildings, including for the Ras Al-Kheimah Gateway City in the United Arab Emirates, the Museum Complex at the World Trade Centre in New York, the Sheikh Zayed Knowledge Centre in Abu Dhabi and the Institute of Neurobiology in Marseilles. A professor at the Institute of Experimental Studies in Architecture at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, in 2008 Thorsen was honoured with the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit of St Olav.
Born on 14 June 1958 and spending most of his childhood on the coastal island of Karmoy in Norway, after time spent in Germany Thorsen spent two years studying in England. Later, he moved to Graz, Austria, to study architecture, earning his Masters in 1985. The same year Thorsen moved to Oslo and opened his first private practice. In 1986, Thorsen become a member of the board of the Norwegian Architects Association (NAA) and co-founder of Norway's first architectural gallery. He served on the Design Competition Committee of the NAA and joined the French Association of Architects (FAA) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In 2002, Thorsen became a member of the European Cultural Parliament, a lobby organisation working in the field of culture in the European Union.
To Egyptians, Thorsen is best known as co-founder, owner and director of Snohetta Architecture and Landscape Company, which built the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. "When I visited the main hall of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina today and found that it was full of young people, my heart started beating fast. I got emotional because it is beautiful to see a great number of young people use the Bibliotheca -- to see them actually getting benefit from it. If it is for anything, a library like this is for young people and the coming generations," Thorsen told Al-Ahram Weekly when he visited the Bibliotheca recently on the occasion of its seventh anniversary.
Thorsen believes that the Bibliotheca's design gives its visitors inspiration. "This is exactly what we meant by 'parallelism' between the physical environment and mental environment. If you are in a space that is inspiring you will work better, while if you are in a space that is ugly you do not learn much," he says. "I believe that architecture has more value than just protecting people from heat and cold. Architecture is more than just shelter -- it is a cultural presentation of who you are and how you think."
There have been three main turning points in Thorsen's life. "The first and most important in my early life was when I was 16 years old in school in England. I wanted to become an artist; however, my art teacher told me that I would be better off as an architect because he thought there was a combination in my character mixing art, mathematics, science, statistics and logic," Thorsen remembers. According to Thorsen, architecture is similar to art as it deals with feelings and emotions. "However, it is also different from art in many ways. Architecture must be in union with its immediate surroundings."
The second important turning point in Thorsen's life was starting to study architecture in Austria. The third was designing and building the Bibliotheca.
"When we won the worldwide competition to design the Bibliotheca Alexandrina -- 700 designs had been submitted from 52 countries -- almost 20 years ago, it was a turning point in my career because I was fresh and young and had just started in the profession," Thorsen remembers. In 1985, Thorsen and his wife had also taken a trip to Egypt for about six weeks. "The trip was inspiring to me. It was also strange, as I felt that Egypt was a familiar place to me, though it was the first time in my life that I had visited Egypt. We said that we had to do some work in Egypt. Therefore, we kept looking for possibilities, until we participated in the international competition in 1988 and won the commission in 1989."
Relating the story of the designing of Bibliotheca, Thorsen said that he had called up his colleague Christoph Kapeller, who had studied architecture with him in Austria. They started drafting together in downtown Los Angeles, and it took almost two months to establish an initial design. The Bibliotheca is designed around a circular shape that slopes magnificently into a pool. The pool helps to cool the area around the building, and it naturally collects dust, cleaning the air around the building.
Thorsen explains that the circular shape of the Bibliotheca is what he calls "a metaphoric symbol", adding that "the original Bibliotheca was an ancient library, and now we were charged with designing a modern one. We tried to find a new typology for the library suitable for this particular site in Alexandria. We tried to find an object that symbolised the idea of rotation, so when you see the building you have the idea of the rotation of time."
"The building comes from the underground to the above ground, and then we stopped the movement. It basically symbolises the horizon, with the sun going up above the horizon, and then going down again behind the horizon, and that in itself is a representation of time. We can tell what the time is by looking at the sun, which is the movement of time."
Remembering the seven years it took to build the library (1995-2002), Thorsen recalls all kinds of problems. "As Norwegians, Austrians and Americans, we were confronted with a totally different culture when building the Bibliotheca. So, we had to be patient, and we had to listen and to understand. We couldn't impose things just because we felt they were right. We had to re-study and undertake further analysis to understand what, why and how others were thinking and what they were doing. We had to adapt to a new cultural way of thinking. It took time to adapt emotionally as well. At the beginning, I stayed in Egypt for one and a half years, and then I travelled in and out during subsequent years," Thorsen says.
"We suffered under the complicated procedures and bureaucracy. I think we encountered all the problems Egyptians normally encounter, though things were slightly easier because the library was the biggest national cultural project for Egypt."
Asked about the structural work done by an Egyptian company and if there were mistakes made in implementing his architectural design Thorsen replies: "No, it was the other way around. We had a lot of happy and positive surprises. The light conditions inside the Bibliotheca turned out better than we designed, for example. When the real work started, it was better than the drawing or model. Real things are always better. In a huge space like that of the Bibliotheca you can't control everything, so you always experience new things when the work actually starts."
One of the criticisms made of the design of the Bibliotheca is that there is little view of the Mediterranean Sea from inside. To this Thorsen replies that, "I think it is quite interesting if you look at the light inside the Bibliotheca, with the glimpses of the sea. Some people ask why there are not more windows overlooking the sea. But from my point of view less view of the sea is better. If one sees everything, then it is like being outside. We wanted to be inside and to look out, so we gave only glimpses."
Another criticism, this time from some European countries, is mentioned by Thorsen himself: "They find it a little strange for Egypt and international organisations to spend so much money on building the Bibliotheca -- it cost US$218 million, or almost LE1 billion -- in a country where almost half the population is illiterate." However, what better encouragement for increased literacy than a world-class library, Thorsen asks. Asked if he believes that the Bibliotheca has played a full cultural and educational role in Egypt, Thorsen replies that, "I do not know if it does this specifically, but at least what it does for Alexandria is positive. When I visited the hall of the library it was full."
Thorsen has developed his own vision of architecture, based on widening collaboration between those working in the fields of design, art and architecture. "In Snohetta, engineers, artists, sociologists, architects, interior designers, landscape architects, administrators and financial staff, and acoustic design consultants all work together, although we do not lose the integrity of each profession. It is similar to an orchestra. The architecture is also very complex, socially and technically."
A second pillar of Thorsen's vision is "context" -- in other words, designing buildings according to where they will be vis-à-vis the elements of nature, sun, wind, earth, etc., and culture. "This is what we mean by 'contextual architecture', meaning that the building can not be anywhere but exactly in the place that it is."
Thorsen has long been fascinated by the relationship between architecture, space and the senses. "In architecture, all your senses must be used and even have to be sharpened," he says.
He highlights a common goal of the architect and the musical instrument maker: to strive for perfect resonance. "What the architect and the instrument maker have in common in their approach to design is that both use the senses as well as the mind in their ambition to create new and greater experiences." Thorsen is also fascinated by the ways in which we experience the natural elements, something that is apparent in his design for the Turner Museum in the seaside town of Margate, England. The structure of the building was designed as a great sail facing the waves, bravely confronting the ferocity of the elements.
Thorsen describes himself as being motivated and inspired by people, literature and music. "Even more than by architecture, I am inspired and motivated by other people, who lead me to things that I couldn't see alone. It is a continuous learning process. I learn new things everyday. I do this through conversations and social gatherings. I also read a lot of literature, especially Spanish literature. I have also read many of Naguib Mahfouz's novels." While Thorsen describes himself as "quite an easy person", he admits that he can also be demanding when it comes to quality and production. "I never reach perfection, but I am always trying," he says. "There is always something standing in the way of perfection."
Asked about Cairo, Thorsen notes how beauty in the city coexists with ugliness. "However, this is like many other cities in the world," he says. "In general, people think that the old cities are the most beautiful ones, which is not true. I do not think that the Bibliotheca is worse than any of the old buildings in Alexandria. I love old buildings, but I don't think that they are necessarily better than new ones. Good pieces of modern architecture are at least as good as old buildings. The problem is that modern architecture has not been able to convince the public that it is as good as historical examples," Thorsen says.
"Nowadays we are building a huge number of buildings around the world, more than ever in history perhaps. And due to the environmental crisis, we really have to think of how we construct our buildings. We have to construct environmentally-sound buildings and look at energy consumption, building materials, ecology, gardens and parks. We have to make what we are constructing our buildings from better, which takes a lot of effort, knowledge and understanding from officials and architects."
Thorsen's architectural firm Snohetta aims to help promote such social and environmental understanding. Founded in Norway in 1989, the company now has offices in Oslo and New York, with a staff of 100 and 20, respectively. Snohetta's employees, drawn from all over the world, include two Egyptians. "We believe that we have to get a better understating of different cultures. The future of Snohetta is very positive at the moment," Thorsen says. Among the firm's notable works are the Norwegian Embassy in Berlin, the new National Opera House in Oslo, the Turner Museum in England, and the Lillehammer Art Museum in Norway. "The Opera House in Oslo gave us a tremendous amount of international recognition and took eight years to build," Thorsen remarks.
However, the location of the Oslo Opera House also triggered heated debate about where it should be located, with elite voices wanting it to be built in the established cultural quarter of western Oslo and more populist voices wanting it to be located on Bjorvika Harbour in the east of the city. The populist voices won in the end, and the debate may also have impacted on the design of the building itself. Thorsen's view is that the "building bridges these things. It's an elitist institution, but the building itself is not." With its sloping roof accessible from ground level, "you can bicycle over the Opera House," he says.
Thorsen's latest project is the King Abdel-Aziz Centre for Knowledge and Culture in Saudi Arabia, the foundation stone of which was laid on 20 May 2008 by Saudi King Abdullah. The Cultural Centre will be completed in 2011 and is an initiative of the Saudi Aramco Oil Company to promote cultural development in Saudi Arabia. When completed, it will contain some 50,000 square metres of diverse cultural facilities, including an auditorium, cinema, library, exhibition hall, museum and archive. "We are famous for generating experimental and strange new ideas," Thorsen says, and the Cultural Centre, composed of what seem to be huge pieces of rock, varied in size and scattered haphazardly next to each other in the desert, is no exception.
The idea behind the centre came to Thorsen when he was reading Invisible Cities by Italian novelist Italo Calvino, which takes the form of a discussion between two historical characters, explorer Marco Polo and Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan.
"They were discussing the building of a Roman bridge, where the last stone you put in the bridge is the piece that carries the whole construction. If you take out this piece, the whole bridge will fall down. We wanted to build something where one element depends on the other; if you take one away, the other falls down. This shows the dependency of each element. You could also call it a chain of values: one thing alone is not enough -- each needs to be turned instead towards totality. Auditorium, cinema, library, exhibition hall, museum and archive -- each 'stone' or building will have a different function."
When asked which of the buildings he has designed he likes the most, Thorsen replies that, "this is like asking me which of my children I love the most. The answer is that I love them all."
By Sahar El-Bahr

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