Snøhetta, The Opera House

Hitting a high note

Just like many other port towns, Oslo has redesigned its waterfront. The Opera House, which is the largest cultural building to be completed in Norway since Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim (c.1300), is said to be an important symbol of what Norway represents as a nation and will express the role that opera and ballet have in society.

The construction of the new Opera House is the single largest cultural-political initiative in modern Norway. Its base area is the equivalent of four international standard football fields and the building has 1,100 rooms grouped in numerous sections.

Designed by architectural firm, Snøhetta, the Opera House design is poetic, but also concrete; it takes away room from the city, but also gives it back. It is the mediator between two quarters and it connects land and sea. The architectural team chose for monumentality, but not for one that towers as a sculpture. On the contrary, the monumentality is a social one: a public proscenium on a human level.

The venue is a landscape and a building. In that sense, it conceals its actual musical function and has a double use. The roof, rising to 32m, is designed as a public space with exciting refractions, stairs, corners and elements like the 54m high flytower, in an austere but pleasing play of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines.

It is a miraculous carpet on which one can walk, sit, picnic, dance, skate, or descend into the water or ski. The foyer is open all day, with four bars, restaurants, shops, and toilets.

The rich-in-form ensemble of surfaces has considerable dimensions: 207m x 110m. Including the forecourt, it is 242m long. Resting on piles up to 55m, the colossus of concrete and steel reaches down to 16m below sea level.

In the underground, vault spaces like underground stages, dressing rooms, storage, rehearsal rooms and technical gear are located. The project accommodates 1,100 bigger and smaller rooms for more than 600 people.

The building itself is typified by a hard exterior (natural stone and glass) and a soft interior (oak). The roof, large parts of the outer walls, forecourt and foyer are clad or covered with 38,000 radiant white plates of Carrara marble.

The outer wall on the north side and a zone on the sea front are furnished with the Norwegian granite species Ice Green. The public areas on the front or west side have huge glass walls for the unobstructed view over the Oslofjord; in one of them a colossal solar panel is integrated.

At the back, the business facilities are accommodated over four storeys and a cellar, such as workshops, rehearsal rooms, offices, dressing rooms and storage. They all are flexible and adaptable; the functionality of them is indicated by the horizontal aluminium cladding with a pattern that comes to life by the light.

Walking into the foyer is a comforting breakthrough. Defining the scene is a high curving wall of oiled oak: rough Baltic oak forms the outside of the curves and smooth American white oak forms the inner side of the curves and the ceiling. Even from a distance, through the glass walls the wood shimmers.

The foyer is a grand, open room with a variety of lighting conditions and views to the surroundings. This space is characterised by its simple use of materials and minimal details. American white oak was chosen by architects Snøhetta AS of Oslo and New York for the main foyer.

Bosvik AS – a Nowegian-based interior designer and contractor – was tasked with providing around 3,000m2 of white oak panels, which were used to clad the tall undulating wall, separating the foyer and auditoria. This ‘road to the theatre’ runs via winding corridors alongside stairwells up to the third balcony of the Big Auditorium.

They are completely boarded with oiled American white oak: floors, walls, stairs and ceiling, symbolically stating the movement from reality to fantasy. After all modernity outside, this is definitively a special experience.

It is also enhanced when you enter the Big Auditorium: reflecting the intimacy of the past. Walls, balconies, balustrades and a circular acoustic ceiling element are designed in German oak while the floor is of Polish oak. Only the contemporary pattern of lines and surfaces on the red seats stops the time machine.

Moreover, every seat has a screen on the back of it which can be translated into eight languages depending on which opera plays.

The horseshoe shape and high ceiling have good natural acoustics and long sightlines. All kinds of music is, in principle, performable. Electronic amplification is not necessary for optimal acoustics.

The reflecting walls and ceilings make the acoustics sharper, while broken surfaces scatter the sound. The floor of the orchestra pit is made up of plywood on joists for a correct balance between sound reproduction and communication among musicians and a good reverberation of low frequencies, so that the total soundscape smoothly multiplies to the auditorium.

The oak floor minimises the absorption of low frequencies whilst the wood-veneered seats, their upholstering and the listeners altogether bring reverberation and absorption in balance. On a high level also oak boards are applied in an acoustic transparent screen, so that sounds don’t move to unwanted areas.

American white oak has become the first choice for architects and designers around the world for both public and private projects because of its flexibility, stability and attractive straight grain, which makes it suitable for most applications.

On top of this, it comes from the sustainably managed hardwood forests of the United States, where the hardwood growing stock has increased from 184,090 million cubic feet in 1953, to just under 400,000 million cubic feet in 2007.

Project Particulars
Project Location: Kirsten Flagstads plass 1, Oslo
Client: Statsbygg Oslo
User: Den Norske Opera & Ballett
Design: Architectural firm Snøhetta Oslo
Contractors: Scandiaconsult Drammen; Veidekke Group Oslo; Johs. J. Syltern Åfjord
Engineering: Reinertsen Engineering Trondheim; Ingenior Per Rasmussen Voyenenga, Erichsen & Horgen Oslo
Acoustics: BrekkeStrandArup Oslo/Winchester
Theatre advice: Theatre Projects Consultants London
Surface area: 39,000 m2
Building costs: Approximately € 500 million