Elaine  Molinar

The El Paso Children’s Museum will be the first project of its kind for Elaine Molinar and the Snøhetta architectural firm she helped start in Oslo, Norway, 30 years ago.

That seems somehow surprising for a firm that has thousands of design projects under its belt and 240 architects at work in six cities, including New York, San Francisco, Paris and Hong Kong.

The Wall Street Journal called Snøhetta “one of the world’s most sought-after firms,” and the former El Pasoan is its managing director.

It all began in El Paso for Molinar, a 1980 Coronado High School graduate, when she headed off to Texas Christian University in Ft. Worth in search of a profession and found one that took her to UT’s well-known five-year architectural program in Austin.

After graduation, she landed a position with a fledgling two-person architectural firm in Oslo and together they entered an international competition in 1989 that drew more than 500 entries to design the Library of Alexandria, Egypt.

Snøhetta’s crew of three architects beat out the world’s top architects to create a breathtaking, 260,000-square-foot project that took 11 years to complete. When it comes to breathtaking, it was only the beginning. She married Craig Dykers, one of the firm’s two founding partners.

Their many projects include the National September 11 Memorial Museum Pavilion and new Times Square in New York City. This year, Molinar received the Texas Medal of Arts Award for Architecture, the state’s highest arts distinction.

Today, Molinar, 57, not only works on architectural projects, she’s the firm’s managing partner for the Americas, handling strategic planning and business development. And she’s the lead architect for the children’s museum.

When asked during a visit to El Paso if her firm might be interested in the children’s museum project, Molinar said yes, and Snøhetta went on to beat out two other firms in a design competition last year.

It’s a modest project compared with many Snøhetta has taken on, but an ambitious one for El Paso. In 2012, voters approved $19 million for the project in the quality-of-life bond election.

Last year, city and community leaders decided that budget was too small to do the project justice and have raised it to $60 million – $20 million of which is to come from private sources and $40 million from municipal bonds – aiming for a world-class museum.

It will be Snøhetta’s first children’s museum, and its completion is scheduled for 2022.

El Paso Inc. got Molinar on the phone at her New York studio recently to talk about the importance of children’s museums today, how she found a lifelong career she had never thought of before and a couple of her favorite projects.

Q: The cost of the children’s museum has gone from $19 million to $60 million with a mix of public and private funds. What is the status of the project and is there a possible target date for completion?

We are just about to finish up the schematic design phase. After that, we begin a more detailed design phase and then move on into construction documents. Then the project will go out to bid, and construction will start shortly thereafter. Construction will probably be starting in 2020, and we anticipate opening, more or less, in early 2022.

Q: Are the El Paso Community Foundation and other backers still in the fundraising mode?

Yes, all projects usually, especially institutional ones, are always in fundraising mode. 

Q: What were you thinking about when you were 18 and just graduated from Coronado High in terms of your future?

I was thinking about going to college, and I didn’t quite know exactly what I wanted to study. I had some interest in engineering and always had an interest in art and creative pursuits. But I wasn’t quite sure, so I went off to college with an open mind.

Q: How did you find your way to architecture?

I went to Texas Christian University for my freshman and sophomore years, and during that time when I was looking for a profession, I guess, I was taking a lot of art classes and dance and science as well, which I also had a strong interest in. 

I ended up taking a technical drawing class, like an engineering type of drawing class. It was taught by an architect, and he sort of talked to me about the architecture profession and thought that I might be a good fit. And I used to spend many of my weekends with my friends at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, one of the most famous museums in the world. I didn’t really connect the dots, but once I realized that that’s what architects were doing, I knew that I wanted to do that. 

Q: You have been an architect for 31 years, all of them with Snøhetta. What have been your one or two favorite projects? 

I have a number of favorites. One that is quite significant was the Oslo Opera House, which I worked on and had a lot of responsibility for all of the rehearsal studios and the dance studios and areas of the stage. 

As a former ballet student, that was very meaningful to me and quite fun.

Q: And in the U.S., something people could look up to see?

The quirkiest one we’ve done was to design a dollhouse. You can see it on our website. We designed a couple of them for fundraising events. It was super fun. Dollhouses are designed on a one-inch scale, so one inch equals one foot, which is very relatable. 

It was very different from working on anything else because when we design and we build models and we make drawings, it can only be a representation of another reality that happens in the future. But when you design and build a dollhouse, you’re actually building the real thing, so you have to think about it in a different way.

It’s very engaging. Everybody wanted to work on it, and everybody got very attached to the kind of life you imagine happening in a dollhouse. It was just a lot of fun. It was kind of like a palate cleanser that kind of frees your mind and lets you think without the restrictions of contractors and budgets and things like that.

Q: Where is that dollhouse? Can people go online and see it?

It’s only on our website because it was purchased at auction for fundraising.

Q: Do you know where it is now? 

I don’t. We made it for a fundraiser for the new Children’s Hospital in El Paso. The second dollhouse was made for a fundraiser for the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, and Charles Schwab has that one.

Q: How do you spend your spare time? 

When I’m not working or traveling, I like to read and watch movies, and I have a small studio and our apartment where I do small artistic things, small sculpture. 

Q: How many children’s museums has Snøhetta designed? 

None.

Q: Oh, so these are rare projects?

When I was growing up, I think there were maybe 40 or 50 children’s museums in the United States. Now it’s probably in the hundreds. They’ve grown in popularity for a number of reasons, which I think are quite interesting. 

Q: Go on.

I think life is different today. Generally, our time is more structured and occupied with a lot of things that we have to do. I think children’s free time has been reduced or limited. There’s a lot of planned time, and it’s generally supervised.

Q: Kids are not as free as they used to be.

Right, and technological devices also mean that children are less physically active. Children’s museums offer a safe place now for that unstructured time. And it doesn’t have to be completely supervised.

Q: How many other architects in your firm are involved in this project? And what is your role?

Our core team is about five or six people, although there have been more people involved. Everybody wants to work on this. It’s a very popular project in the studio. My role is as the partner-in-charge, and I’m working directly with our team to make sure we are meeting not only the goals of our client and the project, but our own design goals and ambitions for the project, also.

Q: Why is this project so popular that everyone wants to get in on it?  

It’s fun! It’s incredibly fun. And I have to say that the commitment and direction and enthusiasm that we’ve received from our client is remarkable. And that’s a rare thing. 

Q: And by that you mean the city of El Paso?

The city, the Community Foundation, the museum director. Everyone involved in El Paso on this project has a high degree of involvement and dedication and enthusiasm, which is just a joy to work with.

Q: Are you involved with other projects as well or is this pretty much your job full-time for the time being?

 This is one of the projects I’m involved with. I am also involved with a couple of very small things and the operations of our studio and our business.

Q: We think of an art museum as being about paintings and sculptures, new and old. What is the aim a children’s museum today?

Art museums, for example, are generally hands off. A children’s museum is most definitely a hands-on kind of place. It is a place for discovery, experimentation and exploration and that can happen in many, many different ways. 

There’s a lot of research out there about the value of play and learning through play. Children’s museums, the exhibits and the experiences in them, offer those kinds of opportunities. We develop a lot of our social skills and problem-solving skills through play and play acting and role playing and being physical. Those are all things that we need to be a successful adult and it goes back to the idea that there is less and less time for children to play.

Q: When we were kids, decades ago, there was a lot of free time. We spent a lot of time outdoors with other kids. It was completely different, I think, from today. It sounds like a children’s museum steps into the place of those sorts of experiences.

Yeah, it is a little bit and then some – because they have quite a lot of things that we didn’t have then. 

Q: Is there more you can say about this children’s museum and what it might offer?

We have an exhibit designer on the team who is with a separate company. They’re one of the consultants on the team, and they are just starting their work now, defining what those exhibits are. But this museum will offer something of a broad age range for the kids – and adults as well – things that toddlers and very young kids can experience, as well as older kids. 

One of the main features of this museum that you’d find in other children’s museums will be a climbing structure, and that will be quite large. It will be in a space that’s about 60 feet high and will have a variety of ways in which kids can climb through it. It’s important to be able to have a certain element of risk. 

You know, like climbing a tree. You’re essentially safe, but you’re able to take those kinds of chances and be up high, and get a different perspective.

Q: It sounds a little like a museum and an amusement park as well.

I don’t know if that’s the right way to describe it. There will also be a technology component, for example, so there will be a gallery that a lot of the older kids would find interesting where you can create your own film and edit it. There will be many different things to do and learn about. There will also be an exhibit dedicated to weather phenomena, for example. 

Q: I heard someone on local radio recently say this museum could be a significant tourist attraction for Downtown. Do children’s museums become tourist attractions? 

Well, I think if a family is thinking about taking a vacation and what city to go to, generally the attractions are adult-oriented. But if there’s also a children’s museum that has a lot of other things to offer, then it becomes a very attractive travel destination, which is good for any city. 

Q: What was your favorite thing about El Paso and has it changed since you left? 

I left when I was 18. This is probably very clichéd, but I just love the mountains and the desert, and moving in that mountain landscape for me was enjoyable.

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