David Salmela is an architectural anomaly. Self-taught in the ways of design, practicing far from the centers of fashion on the frigid edge of Lake Superior, a diminutive man with a friendly, disarming manner, Salmela is hardly the prototypical trendsetter. But for more than a decade he has been a progressive force among Minnesota architects. And with his receipt of not one but two AIA Honor Awards at this year's national American Institute of Architects convention and a merit award from this magazine, Salmela secured his place as a force to be reckoned with on the national scene as well. A self-described modernist who admits, with a hint of bewilderment, to being controversial, Salmela routinely creates sophisticated houses that blend his own proclivity for minimalism with a talent for concocting domestic comfort. All this for clients who, by and large, are everyday people—not corporate executives, not art collectors, not style-conscious celebrities.
The unusual trajectory of his architectural career has placed Salmela in the rare position of having one foot outside of the architectural mainstream and one foot in, giving him a perspective on architectural practice unencumbered by academic brainwashing or old-school ties. The product of an old-fashioned Finnish upbringing, on a dairy farm in central Minnesota, Salmela displays a streak of stubbornness, tempered by ever-present optimism, that makes him an uncommon figure indeed.
At times his buildings can be coolly abstract or irrepressibly playful, but much of the attention given to his design accomplishments focuses on his uncanny ability to blend the familiar with the modern. At a minimum, Salmela's importance lies in his ability to marry characteristics that many observers presume to be in opposition, says Tom Fisher, dean of architecture at the University of Minnesota, and author of the recent monograph Salmela Architect (University of Minnesota Press). “He has shown how modern minimalism and traditional form-making are compatible,” Fisher asserts. “In terms of his practice, he has demonstrated that architects can do important work with the smallest of budgets and in the most out-of-the-way places. After David, architects have no excuses for not doing terrific work.”
As he tells it, Salmela started his career as a forward-thinking modernist, but after a few years he started to question why the public failed to embrace the modern agenda. He took a harder look at the old buildings of his region and studied the architectural traditions of Scandinavia. Architects such as Charles Moore and Robert Venturi were challenging the limitations of modern doctrine at the same time. Now, Salmela says, even the purists are becoming more sensitive to the feelings of their clients. “And basically that is what I am trying to do.”
Born in 1945, Salmela grew up near the hamlet of Sedeka, Minnesota. He fondly recalls the carefully tended fields and meticulously maintained flower beds on the family farm—where Salmela learned to value tidiness over messiness. As a youth, he was awed by the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. Soon Wright was displaced by Le Corbusier, whose coverage in a magazine convinced Salmela his fate was to pursue architecture. But by the time he was ready for college, Salmela suffered under the impression that good marks in math and science were the only ticket to success as an architect. At age 18, he was so intimidated that he lowered his sights—enlisting in the National Guard and enrolling half-heartedly at the University of Minnesota.
Soon he quit school altogether. To bide his time, he took a drafting course and looked for a job in an architecture office. Nobody would hire him, but he had better luck with engineering firms, where he learned how to get things built. “So it wasn't time wasted,” Salmela says. “But as far as getting a prestigious degree and getting architectural credentials—I have none.”
Salmela made the transition to architecture by working at firms located in the state's rugged Iron Range. After a year at a small office in Hibbing, Minn., he took a job at another firm, where the pace was so hectic that he was given free rein to design. “We did a lot of buildings, and we did a lot of gutsy things,” Salmela says.
For 23 years, he made his home in this obscure corner of the state, and over time developed skill as a designer in the office of Damberg, Scott, Peck & Booker in Virginia, Minn. Between 1985 and 1990, three of his residences won statewide accolades for the firm. By the time the third award was announced, he already had packed up his wife and five children and moved to Duluth to open an office for Minneapolis-based Mulfinger and Susanka. That office closed a year later, so he launched a practice with his colleague, Cheryl Fosdick. Their partnership lasted three years, ending abruptly in 1994.
So, at 49, Salmela found himself thrust out on his own, without ever having wished for the independence that would liberate him artistically. It was a turning point. By then, he already had begun to look to his Finnish roots for inspiration. More importantly, he had work. In fact, he had already started designing a house for clients Jim and Judy Brandenburg.
Jim Brandenburg, a celebrated nature photographer, owned a large parcel of land far in the north woods of Minnesota near the 3-million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. On it, next to a waterfall that churns with the spring thaw, sat a simple log cabin. To hear Brandenburg tell it today, he approached Salmela for help with a simple lean-to addition.
Salmela had other ideas. He preserved the log cabin but used it as a departure point for a series of additions, each with a discrete roof form, texture, and material. The resulting compound, a house and studio known as Ravenwood, straddles the gravel drive like a tiny wilderness village.
Salmela choreographed the approach to the house to create a sense of anticipation. Visitors are guided past the studio addition, onto a wooden porch, and around the log cabin, where the waterfall comes into view. Along the path, there's much to catch the eye: a dry-laid taconite wall, board-and-batten siding painted in deep hues, a shingle roof with the delicate texture of tweed, a stark chimney made of dark gray concrete blocks, a cedar-clad box with ribbon windows and a thin cedar eyebrow, and a wide blue bench where one can contemplate a 300-pound stone that sways on a thin steel cable like a prehistoric metronome.
The rustic qualities of the exterior disappear inside the house. Flush tongue-and-groove cedar paneling turns the corners with taught precision; trim, gray-slate floors lend a minimalist air. But the combination of natural materials imparts warmth to the space, which is comfortably scaled. From there, the visitor steps into the studio, which extends into the woods like a large tent. Brandenburg's library and workspace occupy the ground floor, with an additional office loft overhead.
“I visited that house and loved it at first sight,” says Mark Simon, FAIA, of Centerbrook Architects and Planners. Simon, who served on the jury that recognized the house with an AIA Honor Award in 1998, praises Salmela's configuration of the house as a complex that allows occupants to feel at once protected, but close to nature. “David focused views on the surrounding landscape in a variety of ways—tall windows frame a few trees while long low windows frame the whole forest going up a hill or down into a valley. Each makes you look more carefully. The house instructs and pleases at the same time.”