Communication, Independence and Timing: Elaine Molinar on Her Years With Snøhetta
By Julia Gamolina
Elaine Molinar is a founding partner at Snøhetta and Managing Director of the Americas. Having been with Snøhetta since the very beginning, she has worked on the Alexandria Library, the Oslo Opera House, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and was one of the key people in setting up Snøhetta’s practice in New York City. In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Elaine describes her 30 year journey with the firm, and emphasizes the power of communicating clearly, recognizing that no task is too small, and finding your own voice and independence. She also encourages young architects to stay curious and try different things in order to define their career for themselves.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
EM: Like many other people who became architects, I always had a wide variety of interests and started drawing and building things from an early age. My father also did woodwork as a hobby and I often helped him as a kid. When it was time for college, I had no idea what I wanted to do – I wasn’t aware of any profession that would capture all of my interests. I became a serious ballet student when I was young, so I chose Texas Christian University, which had a strong dance program, and continued studying ballet while I figured things out.
At university, I took a technical drawing class and the architect who taught the class suggested I try architecture. My roommate and I also used to spend most of our weekends at the Kimbell Art Museum, and after I discovered that the Kimball Art Museum was an example of what modern architects did, I wanted to do that too. I immediately transferred into the architecture program at University of Texas at Austin, and completed the 5-year professional degree.
You’ve been with Snohetta since the very beginning! Can you describe how it all started?
Our two founding partners, one American and one Norwegian, met through a common friend, an architect from Austria. Together they decided to form a team to enter the Alexandria Library competition, which I then joined with a few others. It was a large, international competition and over 500 anonymous entries were judged. We won first prize and this project helped define what our practice is today. We carried out the project from Oslo where our studio and practice began to grow.
What do you think it was about your proposal that stood out?
After we saw all of the other entries, as they were all published, our proposal was clearly different. It had a lot of clarity and specificity and power. Our presentation was starkly simple compared to the others. We had very few lines on paper and there was a lot of white space on our competition boards which made our proposal very easy to read and understand and remember. Architects tend not to be very good editors, and tend to provide too much information. We’re all so interested in what we do that we think everyone else is interested, but the reality is your audience only needs to know a few things, in a particular way. Our proposal was also very functional. The competition brief was very clearly written and we adhered to it very strictly.
Can you tell me about those sixteen years at Snohetta in Norway?
I spent many early years working on a lot of competitions. I became very eager to build and it took a few years before we were awarded projects which would go through construction. Our company was a group of very young people, building a practice together. Since we didn’t have that very experienced person to learn from, I looked to our project consultants and clients to learn as much as I could.
How did the role of Managing Partner develop for you? Did you always want to focus on this side of professional practice?
My role developed organically for me. At the beginning of my career, I was very happy to bury myself in the day to day details of developing a project but at some point, I developed an interest in being an active participant in the shaping the purpose of our practice.
In 2004 we were awarded the commission for a cultural center at the World Trade Center site. Ultimately, this became the September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion. We had talked about entering the North American market for some time before that, so the opportunity to come here with a project in hand was a great advantage.
Practicing in New York was very appealing to me – I had never really practiced in the in the United States as I moved to Norway shortly after finishing school. I had also started to become curious about how a studio could be organized, why and how decisions were made, and what our work meant for us beyond its architectural qualities. So I and a few other colleagues came from Norway to New York and set up the studio. Having such a close personal hand in building something new was very exciting, and has led me most directly to my managing role.
What was the transition to New York like?
Setting up the office here was very good for me personally. First, when you set something up it’s like being a settler; you have to be proactive and go around and look, rather than waiting to be asked or waiting to be told by someone else what needs to be done. Second, since my husband is one of our founding partners, it’s taken a lot of focus on my part to develop my own voice. We work together very well and have learned to rely on each other’s strengths, but setting up the New York office has been a very satisfying challenge for me to meet on my own and provoked me into functioning as independently as possible.
What is your day to day like now? I imagine it’s a lot of meetings.
I do have a ton of meetings [laughs]. As Managing Partner, I would say I make decisions, help other people make decisions, and other people help me make decisions. I also pursue new work. I spend a lot of time talking with my team - my primary team includes my partners and our management team. Our duties are establishing the major direction that we want to take with the firm, and ensuring our studio is structured and growing in the way that we think is best and most productive for everyone.
How do you integrate your career with everything else that makes you, you?
I don’t think of work-life balance, but rather how work can integrate into my life and how my life can integrate into my work. They need to draw inspiration from one another. Work isn’t going to go away and most of us want to do it, so when you have work that you love, you can integrate it into many of the things you do. Since I work with my spouse and am a business owner I don’t have the same kind of pressures many others do about separating work time from private time. I’m very fortunate that I have my own practice and that that’s one way that Craig and I spend time with each other.
Do you guys have any rules not to talk about work?
We try. Rules get broken [laughs]. The thing we’re really good at is not bringing home issues into the studio. If we’re having a bad day, which everyone does, it doesn’t have negative impact on the work and I’m really proud to say that we’re good at that.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?
I’ve learned that good ideas only matter if they are communicated effectively, and the architect’s role in this is not emphasized enough in school today. Often times we are in a situation where we’re submitting a design proposal and we’re not there to explain or frame it. You also don’t know who your audience is, or what their level of understanding of architecture and two-dimensional drawings is, so curating the information you present is very important.
What has been challenging?
This is not a profession with good timing, and acquiring the experience you need takes patience, especially as larger projects take so long to realize. The Alexandria library took 12 years for us, and its history leading up to the competition launch was even longer, going back to the 70s. Also, our profession feels the state of the economy acutely and the economy has seen several extremes since I started practicing.
What are you most proud of?
In terms of our work it’s being shortlisted for the Obama Presidential Center and meeting with the President and First Lady. It was such a wonderful experience – I thought the process that they ran, of setting up meetings with each of the shortlisted teams, was very smart. The meeting we had was a lot of fun – it was very relaxed, President Obama very quickly put everybody at ease. At some point during the interview, his older daughter Malia came in and said hello. I think our main objective as Snohetta was to be able to establish a good connection and engage in conversation, and that’s exactly what happened. If nothing else, for all of us that didn’t win, it was a great experience and a great memory to take away. They were very receptive, very engaged, and very good people. It’s one of the highlights of my life– meeting such remarkable people.
What has been your general approach to your career?
I’ve always viewed all aspects of realizing work as having value: no task is too small. I think it’s very important to understand that everything has a purpose and that everybody contributes in some way, even if you’re just filing documents or enabling others to do work. The first thing I designed that was built was a small concrete stump, known as a ‘dead man’, which is where roadside guardrails die into the ground. It required a set of drawings, the input of an engineer, and a contractor to build it. Even today, when I find myself on that road I look for it and smile when I see it.
Now that I’ve had a managing role for a long time, I’d love to just sit down and pick up red lines for somebody [laughs]. I wouldn’t consider that uninteresting at all. The more you learn that everything has a purpose, the more you do a variety of things. It’s a great way of keeping your eyes open and seeing what you can do, and you learn a lot about what it takes to run a practice.
What have been some highlights?
Being able to live outside of my home country as a young adult for quite a long time and learning a new language were definitely highlights for me. Also, as a former dancer I loved working on the Oslo Opera House – I was in charge of the back-stage areas, which included the dance studios. Having used dozens of dance studios and performed in various theaters in my past gave me unique inside knowledge of what the dancers needed to thrive in their space.
One of my favorite projects is a dollhouse we designed a few years ago for a charity auction. It was a fun exercise in revisiting childhood hobbies and it was a great learning tool for us as well. Unlike an architectural model, a dollhouse is real! It’s at full scale (for its small inhabitants) and you can quickly see the consequences of your decisions. We all became very attached and invested in the lives we imagined for it [laughs].
What are you most proud of?
In terms of our work it’s being shortlisted for the Obama Presidential Center and meeting with the President and First Lady. It was such a wonderful experience – I thought the process that they ran, of setting up meetings with each of the shortlisted teams, was very smart. The meeting we had was a lot of fun; very relaxed and President Obama quickly put everybody at ease. At some point during the interview, his older daughter Malia came in and said hello. I think our main objective as Snohetta was to establish a good connection and engage in conversation, and that’s exactly what happened. If nothing else, for all of us that didn’t win it was a great experience and a great memory to take away. They were very receptive, very engaged, and very good people. It’s one of the highlights of my life– meeting such remarkable people.
Who are some women in architecture that you admire and think everyone should know about?
We all know there aren’t enough women who remain in the profession but there are a lot of great ones practicing today. Recently I learned of Julia King, aka “Potty Girl” who is bringing sewage systems to slums in India and I think this is such a great issue to focus on - very unglamorous but tremendously impactful. Claire Weisz of WXY, a friend of mine, is an enormously powerful thinker and designer and I constantly marvel at her energy and level of engagement in relevant issues. Historically, Judith Chafee, who practiced in Arizona, has designed some of our best examples of Mid-Century Modern architecture. When I was a student she was one of the architects I was interested in working for.
What are you looking forward to?
For more women to stay in the profession – I’d love to see that. Personally, I just want to keep learning and figure out how to do my job better. I find managing a practice really interesting, but it’s not something that’s taught in school, or what I sought out to do initially. You’re really never at the end of learning – that is not a trite cliché [laughs].
What advice would you give to young architects who are at the beginning of their careers?
What I’ve learned is that there are many different ways to practice architecture and you can never know everything you need to know. There is always something new to learn no matter what you focus on, and it takes time to discover where your value is and to develop the kind of career you want. I tell young architects that the best thing they can then do is to teach their colleagues to do what they do well. Sharing knowledge is an important way for an employee to create value for themselves and the firm they work for. First and foremost though, I would tell people to be curious, be hungry, and define your career yourself – otherwise, others will define it for you.
*originally published on ArchiteXX.org on January 18, 2018