Martin Gran: "If there are no people, there is no architecture - it's just a theory and some sketches"

Martin Gran is a partner at Snøhetta, one of the world's leading design and architecture firms. The company has the first underwater restaurant in Europe, a power plant building that produces more energy than it consumes, and many cultural and social facilities.

In the interview Martin talked about what the mission of an architect should really be, and what conscious building is for him.

- You once told me that once every two years the Snøhetta team goes hiking together in the mountains, that this is part of the company's corporate culture. Tell us more about that.

- Every two years we go to the Snøhetta mountain (the top of the Døvrefjell range in Norway). We try to attract as many people as possible from all our offices around the world - from Australia to San Francisco. The idea behind these trips is to get closer to nature, because nature is at the heart of architecture, because architecture is always about context. It's an important principle in all our work.

On our trips we talk about our motivation as architects and planners, how we can push the boundaries with our work. So there you go. Architecture and design only make sense when they fulfill a role, respond to the needs and demands of people and society.

We are sometimes asked by clients what we think is the most important project in our field. And they probably want to hear a specific project from our portfolio. But we always answer that our most important project is Snøhetta, i.e. ourselves. We strive to take care of people, and to be better members of society.

- Snøhetta won its first significant competition - the Alexandria Library project in Egypt - when the founders were still students and have now become a well-known international company. What do current students need to do to achieve the same success?

- My advice would be to follow your passion, your love for a cause. If there is no passion, if there is no love for a cause, there will be no intrinsic motivation, and success will not follow either. So yes, I will say that you have to follow your passion.

- Talking about the Library of Alexandria project, you said that Snøhetta staff followed the conditions under which it was built. Why is that important? Isn't the role of the architect limited to the idea?

- We always try to make sure that there is added value in projects. It can be an added value for the environment, or economic, or social. We feel that if an architect focuses on architecture for architecture's sake, this is really not architecture at all.

In the Alexandria Library project, we included clauses in the contract to make the work safe, to give workers their paychecks not every two weeks but every four weeks, that there should be helmets, water, safety shoes on the site. These are simple but very important things. We wanted to make sure that at the end of the project there were no occupational injuries, and we succeeded. And it was the first project implemented in the Middle East in which no accidents occurred.

- How did that benefit you?

- This smooth flow of the project showed us that we really can influence the way people interact with buildings. And not just after the building has been built, but during the implementation phase. Because we are always looking to create a sustainable relationship between people and buildings, and foster social interaction. We believe it helps to create a better world in small steps.

- Your company created the Brattorcaya Power Plant office building, which produces more electricity than it consumes. How did this idea come to you in the first place? What do you need to do to make sure all the buildings in the world will be like that in the future?

- I'll start with the last part of your question. For that kind of change, there needs to be more interaction between those who build buildings, politicians, designers, and planners. We need more cooperation. For example, there is a lot of competition between designers. We need to stop acting like this. We need to share our knowledge and experience.

Buildings consume at least half of all electricity in the world. The construction industry has a great responsibility to prevent the environmental crisis we are already facing.

Buildings like Brattorcaya are precisely the answer to this challenge, since they produce more energy than they consume throughout their entire life cycle, including construction and demolition. They also leave a much smaller carbon footprint than other similar buildings.

- Another 100+ speaker, Leo Hollis, believes that we shouldn't think about living in buildings, but living among buildings. Do you agree with this opinion? Explain why.

- Yes, I think that's very well said. I would add that if there are no people, then by and large there is no architecture in its final form. It's just a theory, an outline, which no one will accept.

We need people to interact, and we need to improve social interaction. If we do this successfully, it means we add value. Again, this is very important to us. If we are successful in putting this approach to work, there will be very positive changes.

- Let's fantasize. Based on all your knowledge of Russia, what kind of building could you design for us?

- Of course I would like to know more about Russia. I know that it's a very big country and that there are a lot of people in it, and they're very different. And it would certainly be very nice and exciting to be involved in a project where we could create value for everybody, perhaps in the field of culture or education, as we were able to do with the Oslo Opera House.

- We talk a lot about what Snøhetta has succeeded. Was there something that failed to materialize? Why did it turn out that way?

- Yes, of course, we have had such cases. Like many other architectural and design firms, we lose a lot of tenders for projects. The vision of the project must coincide with the ambitions of the client, which does not always happen. Very often we did projects that were not approved in the end, not because we had bad designs, but because it didn't fit, or because circumstances changed beyond our control. We have a lot of drawings in our office that the world has never seen. We even plan to hold a lecture someday about all those projects that were never meant to be built. We really want to present them one day.

- The theme of our forum this year is "Conscious Construction". How do you define for yourself where conscious building is and where it isn't?

- The theme of the forum is great. I believe that consciousness, or sustainability as we often say, is not only important, it is mandatory. Sometimes we ask ourselves: maybe the world doesn't need any more new building designs. Buildings must have some function and practical value to society. With this approach, sometimes abandoning a project is also a sensible decision.

By 2030, we have set ourselves a goal that all the projects Snøhetta undertakes will be zero- or emissions-neutral projects. This is part of our sustainability strategy - social, economic, environmental. In fact, social sustainability is a very broad topic that we still come back to, even after 30 years since our inception. Most importantly, buildings should benefit people and improve social interaction. That is the true value.