Nordic Houses

Todd Saunders (b. 1969) is responsible for defining much of our sense of contemporary Nordic style. Dominic Bradbury’s new book, New Northern Houses, casts an eye over the Norway-based Canadian architect’s unusual – yet harmonious – synthesis of cultural and artistic influences.

In many ways, the affinity of Canadian and Norwegian architectural styles is a matter of topography and climate. These are northern realms, with northern weather, northern social rituals and economies: crisp sunlight and early evenings, dense dark foliage, cold outside and warmth inside, bleakly beautiful expanses of land. Fishing and forestry have supported regional cultures for centuries, and in many areas continue to do so. As Bradbury points out in his introduction to this book, the “shared ideal of the summer cabin, often situated by the water or a lakeside,” serves to unite the built heritage of the nations. So too does the contrasting “winter refuge, or hut, high up in the hills or mountains. All of these typologies, and others, have resonance in both Canada and Norway, and they inevitably inhabit the imaginations of architects.”

Saunders was born in 1969, next door to a hub of global transit and exchange: Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport. The architect’s father was a mechanic for Air Canada, and a sense of the possibility and excitement of travel infused Saunders’ childhood. He took extended trips to an off-grid timber cabin with his parents, breathing in the scent and atmosphere of remote northern climes. After studying environmental town planning in Nova Scotia, the aspiring designer worked and studied in Vienna, Berlin, Vancouver, Montreal and elsewhere, also backpacking across Europe before finding and “falling in love” with Bergen, a city on Norway’s west coast that he has described as “just like Newfoundland.”

Since launching his architecture practice in 2002, Saunders has balanced residential and non-residential projects. One of his earliest completed designs was for the Villa Strongavika, a “a labour of love” achieved through close collaboration with the client – a local Bergen family – and attention to the needs of the environment as well as the residents. Modesty of scale and lightness of ecological footprint have become defining features of Saunders’ style. So too has the use of distinctive, obliquely angled timber planes – particularly evident in the singular Villa Grieg, on Lake Nordås, south of Bergen.

Amongst the projects featured in this monograph are the Villa Austevoll in Bekkjarvik, on the isolated northern island of Selbjørn. This is a house that seems to float above a waterside. Living room, window and balcony face the fjord, whilst from above the stilt-supported structure is revealed to have an angular, cross-like shape. Other commissions include the gently curved Villa AT in Søgne in Kristiansand, whose long window-filled flank provides respite from the windy conditions both inside and outside. Always engaged by the connections between Norway and Canada, other domestic designs of Saunders’, like Salt Spring and the Lily Pad, have transferred motifs developed in Bergen back to the Canadian context. Suspended structures, which seem to tread lightly on the surface of the earth, recur time and again.

The volume is rounded off with considerations of experimentation and innovation in Saunders’ work, as well as his approach to the natural world and the design process. New Northern Houses is an immersive study complemented by brilliant architectural photography, which places the reader in a state of contemplative affection for the natural world.

Dominic Bradbury, Todd Saunders: New Northern Houses is published by Thames and Hudson, November 2021. Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas

1. Ivar Kvaal, Villa Austevoll, Bekkjarvik, Selbjørn, Austevoll, Vestland, Norway.
2. Bent René SynnevågVilla AT, Søgne, Kristiansand, Norway
3. Ema Peter Photography, Salt Spring, Mount Tuam, Salt Spring Island British Columbia, Canada.
4. Ivar Kvaal, Villa Austevoll, Bekkjarvik, Selbjørn, Austevoll, Vestland, Norway.