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Salmela, Architect

by Thomas Fisher; David Salmela, preface
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2005
200 pp., illus. 56 bw ,154 col. Paper, $34.95
ISBN: 0-8166-4257-5.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


David Salmela’s architecture, evocative and eclectic, blends in with the rural environments where he has been building. As his name suggest, Salmela has a Finnish background, but has been trained and working in the United States of America. He has worked at several bureaus before starting his own atelier in Duluth, Minnesota.

The most striking aspects of Salmela’s work, at first sight, are his use of materials and colours, the integration of either existing structures into new buildings and, the seamless blending of entirely new buildings into remote, often wild natural environments. Wood, both painted and unpainted is his preferred building material, and unlike many books about architects, Salmela explicitly acknowledges the company of carpenters he has been working with preferentially over the years. Wooden structures, panelling, floors and furniture are brought to life by the light that falls through often eccentrically——in both meanings of the word——placed windows. It is as if the buildings enter into a continuous dialogue with their natural surroundings. Whether they are a waterfall, a brook, a hillside, or a patch of practically pristine wood, they are all much more than just backdrops for eye-catching and imposing creations. Mostly residential buildings, his works seem to hesitate between disappearance and attitude, forcing the owners or inhabitants always to be conscious of their responsibility towards surrounding nature and building at the same time. And still, these are not mere cottages, dug into a hillside and covered with grass like hobbit holes. Each building has its own awareness and makes a point because it doesn’t simply follows a program or performs its preset functions, but it appears to participate actively in the life of its inhabitants, its guests, its co-users of the natural environment.

The most striking example of Salmela’s craft is——not surprisingly——a sauna at the Emerson Residence in Duluth of which Fisher says: "From the end, the sauna also looks like a geometrical abstraction of a house. The gable roof appears as a triangular prism on its side, with no end walls or interior trusses to interrupt the purity of its shape, a structural feat achieved by engineer Bruno Franck. Likewise, the semicircular shower at one end and the windowless brick box at the other have a geometric clarity that makes the whole outbuilding look like a mathematical exercise in Platonic form" (p. 19). I rather disagree in this case with Fisher’s further reference to Aldo Rossi’s building style, but the words ‘clarity’ and ‘exercise in form’ in this short quotation ought to be stressed, as they express exactly what makes some of Salmela’s work specific in its formal aspects.

The book itself contains Thomas Fisher’s short essays about some 25 finished buildings and 16 works in progress, splendidly illustrated with photographs by Peter Bastianelli-Kerze.




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