Bergen-based architect Todd Saunders’ self-designed home is a soaring symphony in Norwegian wood
Describing his latest project,a house for his own family in a leafy suburb of Bergen, Todd Saunders says, ‘It’s like three sticks, stackedon top of each other.’ At a stretch, the analogy holds – the house is composed of three wood-clad ele-ments, one vertical, two horizontal – but it’s far more accurate to describe it as astrictly functional composition.
A vertical stack containing stairs and circulation is bisected by a vast horizontal beam that forms the core ofthe house, with the kitchen at its heart and one end supported by a generous utility area set at right angles tothe main structure. Although it takes a single glance to understand the arrangement, the house is morecomplex than it first appears. Throughout the 300 sq m floorplan, there are spatial tricks, large terraces,hidden alignments and the kind of attention to detail that only an architect could bestow on his own personal space.
The house is set among a thicket of modern villas in Tveiterås Garden City, south of Bergen city centre.Once the site of a rural farm, the suburb was laid out by pioneering local architect Leif Grung in the early1930s. Grung’s elegant func-tionalism has weathered well, and the immaculately maintained plots, with theirverdant planting and far-reaching views, create an oasis of calm.
The first view of the new house is up a steep, narrow driveway, from which one gets tantalising glimpses of the ribbon windows, flat roofs and shuttered facadesof the vintage Grungs. Saunders nods to theneighbours while also making a strong statement. Clad in stained black wood, the house has imposingpresence, with the glazing in the three-storey ‘tower’ and accommodation beam reflecting the sky and trees.You also catch a chunk of the site beneath and beyond the structure, thanks to the long cantilever, making the house appear as if it’s just landed on the site. The effort of any build belies the idea that a house can just be ‘set down’ on its plot, especially after Saunders and his family had spent a year living down the road, visiting daily. But now it’s finished, the illusion is a tantalising one.
Set on an east-west alignment, just like its 80-year- old neighbours, the new house feels utterly integratedinto the site. The last remaining plot in Grung’s masterplan, the land was originally designated as acommunal park but had been abandoned to vegetation. Cleared and levelled, with a few key treespreserved, the new house nestles in a slight dip against a slope. Incredibly, the only restriction on the designwas that it had to be less than 9m high, although Saunders and his wife had to present their proposals to 14neighbours. None objected. The steel and wood frame is covered earlier houses, with delicately mitred jointsshapedby Saunders’ long-serving and highly skilled carpenter.
‘Form-wise, it’s not the most spectacular house I’ve done,’ says Saunders, ‘but it’s the most interesting thingfor this climate.’ That is to say, the house is robust but graceful. Covered terraces, and porches abound. ‘It’s like an umbrella – it protects you from the rain.’ Bergen is certainly damp – it rains 250 days a year – although our visit takes place in sparkling sunshine, lending Technicolor surrealism to the elevated livingspaces, their huge windows framing views of both the distant harbour city and the steep, rocky hillside. ‘It’s quite rectilinear,’ says Saunders. ‘The houses here are not showing off and it had to be a good neighbour – it was what felt right in terms of scale and materiality.’ Saunders’ modesty is disarming. The Canadian haslived in Bergen for 18 years, and although 75 per cent of his work takes place outside the city limits, he is clearly fond of it. Already known for his work in Norway,the architect’s pavi-lions and hotel for Fogo Islandcemented his reputation. His geometric forms adrift on the rugged Newfoundland coast created irresistibleclickbait for an architecture-hungry global audience.
Of his own house, he says, ‘There’s not much here we’ll never use. I approached it as a home for my family,to make our life really good.’ The raised level doublesas a carport below, and a covered walkway leads tothe front door. A porch, utility area and playroom take up the ground floor, with stairs heading to the mainspace, where the house opens up. The dimensions are impressive – a 35m-long living area, with wideDinesen floorboards underfoot (some of which run an unbroken 14m), as well as a mighty 9m kitchencounter. Aside from the kitchen, the rooms are modest, with a master suite to the west, two bedrooms for hisdaughters at the centre of the house, and a living room to the east. The terraces are partly covered, and thetwin orientations make them perfect for morning or evening use.
The furniture and fittings have been chosen in collaboration with Swedish artist Hannes Wingate,a Central St Martins graduate who spent a few years running Jeanne Gang’s interiors department in Chicago. ‘Todd’s architecture is con-nected to anorigin or vernacular both in its form, materiality and relationship to site,’ says Wingate. ‘He’s refreshingly no-nonsense.’ Starting from scratch, the artist assembled a collection that makesthe most of the spaces, including a daybed by Another Country, vintage Danish sideboards, light fixtures byRoll & Hill, and kitchen counter stools by Søren Rose, while handmade ceramic tiles from San Franciscoadorn all three bathrooms. The custom-built staircase – with its open treads preserving the views along thelength of the house – continues to the top floor, where there’s a li-brary space and two more terraces.Saunders describes the library as the biggest extravagance in a housethat is pared down to the bareessentials. ‘It’s the closest I’ve come to bringing architecture and home together. It’s one chapter of who I amas an architect, but it’s not the full story.’
Meanwhile, thick walls conceal masses of storage, as well as swathes of insulation, with underfloor heatingpowered by a deep geothermal well on the site. There’s a trick here, although it’s in no way a devious one, inthat Saunders’ archi-tecture successfully translates the lightness and grace of modernism into anenvironment that demands solidity and strength. This is architecture for northern climates, a spaceto live in as well as admire.
Text by: Jonathan Bell