essays in abstraction
This year, Salmela racked up two more AIA Honor Awards for a very small-scale project—a sauna—and a far more expansive one, the 145-acre Jackson Meadow development that, when completed, will consist of 64 Salmela-designed houses. The sauna, built in 2002 for Peter and Cindy Emerson, is in many ways the counterpoint of the multi-faceted house designed for Jim Brandenburg. An essay in abstraction, the sauna has a powerful triangular gable end that balances delicately above a semicircular wall of brick. Those elements, and the simple brick box that contains the actual sauna, are arranged neatly in the woods on a shallow stone plinth.
Entering the structure is akin to stepping inside a well-made cabinet—wood ceilings and partitions wrap the visitor in a protective envelope. Narrow stairs rise to the cooling porch, a tree-house-like room furnished with slatted benches and simple wooden chairs. Salmela notes that the sauna often was the first building erected on the pioneer farmsteads of Finnish immigrants. It provided shelter for the family while the larger homestead was being built. Used not only for bathing but also for social gatherings, the sauna often was the place for childbirth and burial preparation. Salmela's father was born in one.
The contrast between the highly-articulated Ravenwood studio and the minimalist Emerson sauna begins to illustrate the boundaries of Salmela's architectural field of play. Over the past 10 years, his portfolio includes residences that, on the outside, range from the overtly traditional to the starkly contemporary. Somewhere in between are his rural cabins, whose anthropomorphic shapes can make them look like animals hunkered in the woods. But, no matter the outward image, Salmela consistently handles color, materials, and massing with a modernist's eye. And his interiors reflect a keen interest in light, freedom of movement, and scale-making.
“If there is a common thread in the houses I do, it's about bringing light in,” he says. “The most common device I use is to make the house as narrow as possible, so that the house is one room wide. If you glaze it, then you have light coming from two opposite sides.”inspired work
Although his inspirations are many, Salmela is quick to acknowledge his creative debt to Alvar Aalto. There is a kind of kinship between the two—“Aalto was a Finn and I'm an American Finn”—and a similarity in culture and environment shared by Minnesota and Finland. But what resonates most with Salmela is the way Aalto's mature work exhibited a regional response, a humanizing of hard-edged modernism with a craftsmanlike use of materials.
“He's an influence, but the things I do are influenced by other architects, too, whether it's Charlie Moore or Venturi or Mies van der Rohe,” Salmela says. “Those architects would never do what I do. But the whole idea of advancing architecture is to discover a means of solving the problem. And if we can't use what they learned, what good are they?”
Salmela's ability to produce variations on a theme is most evident at Jackson Meadow, a new residential development near the pioneer settlement of Marine on St. Croix. Nestled beside 191 acres of permanently protected open land, the new community both preserves the site's rural character while reinterpreting the vernacular forms, materials, and detailing of the historic town.
Working with landscape architects Shane Coen and Jon Stumpf, Salmela served as co-planner for the site and handled the design of each residence. In selecting the project for an AIA Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design, the jury complimented the design team's sensitive and respectful approach.
Although each house at Jackson Meadow is one of a kind, the developer's requirements for profitability mandated a certain level of standardization too. One of the rules Salmela established for himself: No home can be wider than 24 feet. That accomplishes two things. First, it fills the houses with natural light, a Salmela trademark. Second, it controls the scale of the houses, which all have a 12/12 roof pitch that recalls the historic houses nearby. Were he to make the houses anywhere from 32 to 36 feet wide, Salmela says, their roofs would make them wildly out of scale. “That's the problem with suburban houses,” he fires.
Salmela also criticizes the way many suburban houses have garages jammed up against them. “The builders realize there's a scale problem, so they make bay windows and projected entries. They're trying to correct the scale in a superficial way.” At Jackson Meadow, he separates the houses from the outbuildings, which creates spaces between them and lets light bounce off the outbuildings onto the north side of the houses. “These ideas are so elementary that nobody talks about them,” he says. “But it is so important.”
While Salmela continues at Jackson Meadow to invent new iterations of early Minnesota house types, this year he also completed an all-modern house for contractor Kevin Streeter. At first glance, Streeter's house appears to be a black, concrete-block wall supporting two large metallic boxes on top. A closer look reveals that the wall encloses a garage, which abuts a glassy pavilion containing living and dining areas, a kitchen, and a small office. Inside, the polished concrete floor is a foil to wood window frames and beams overhead. The symmetry of the interior layout demanded two stairs flanked by screen walls made of narrow slats and ascending in opposite directions to reach the two boxes, each of which contains a bedroom and bath.
At the Streeter Residence, the references to Scandinavian tradition are subtle, save for the ubiquitous sauna. Instead, this house celebrates spatial organization, materiality, and light—particularly the light that filters through the slatted screens covering each end of the bedroom boxes.
After visiting a half-dozen of these houses, eventually one wonders what gives David Salmela the freedom to range so far in so many directions? Does it have anything to do with his upbringing in the profession—a benefit, perhaps, of his lack of indoctrination at a school of architecture? “That's probably very true,” he allows. “I don't have any allegiance to anybody. And I kind of get a kick out of it, because I'm critical of the critics. I guess the critics might say I'm out of tune, but it doesn't make a big difference to me. I have to satisfy the needs of my client and also satisfy my own intuition about what architecture is.”
No question, David Salmela is his own man. His is not a black-and-white world, but one that's enriched with infinite shades of gray. And while he acknowledges that buildings of great cultural importance might demand a strong, unrelenting architectural statement, he also insists that if he has a client with a little piece of land hidden in the woods, it isn't a violation of the Constitution to give them what they want.
“You find in this profession that we have things pounded in our heads that you can't do this and you can't do that,” Salmela pronounces. “It isn't always so.”
Vernon Mays is the editor of Inform magazine and Curator of Architecture + Design at the Virginia Center for Architecture in Richmond.