• Object: Villa Solstad, Bergen, Norway
  • Build: 2010
  • Architect: Todd Saunders
  • Kitchen: Kvänum Grip Smoked Oak, Brahe Laminat

The landscape is interspersed with fjords. Green escarpments plunge into glistening depths. The house is outside of Bergen, on the Norwegian west coast.

There was a dead man in my waiting room. That is the first line of Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen’s novel Face to Face. There is hardly anyone in Bergen as famous as the fictional character Varg Veum in Staalesen’s books.

Staalesen is Norway’s equivalent to Chandler and Hammett. Veum may be hard-boiled but speaks the soft dialect of the West Country. He is a kind-hearted, sad and disillusioned detective, always with a half-empty bottle of whisky to hand in his bottom desk drawer.
The house on the hill is not part of Veum’s world, but he knows of it. What Veum doesn’t know about Bergen and its surroundings is not worth knowing. A businessman and his family live in the house. When the businessman is not closing deals, he does triathlons; a tough sport involving swimming, cycling, and running. He has a fully equipped gym on the ground floor and can even run a 60-metre race.

It’s a beautiful house. At first glance, it looks like a villa by Le Corbusier – the shape of a box, an arched volume, terraces, stripes of ribbon windows, and detached pillars upon which the house rests.

Todd Saunders likes to lift up his buildings. There are certainly good environmental reasons for this. ‘I do not want to waste land,’ says the architect based in Bergen.

In the West Country, the rain hardly ever ceases. A house positioned on pillars avoids the moisture and damp, which is crucial in the heavy traffic of Atlantic lows. With covered outdoor spaces he prolongs the summer season. Villa Solstad has extended eaves where one can huddle under blankets while listening to the rain.

Todd Saunders doesn’t mind being called a functionalist. Quite the opposite; function is important. ‘But I’m childish,’ he says. ‘I like playing, pushing the boundaries. Architects seldom do nowadays’.

‘The architect is an artist, or should be,’ notes Saunders. But how playful can he be when it’s an ordered job? Does he get free hands? ‘Yes and no,’ Saunders replies. ‘You always have to compromise. But this client was very generous’.
The children’s bathroom is a delightful detail. The family wanted two washbasins. ‘On a whim I designed three. There are three little daughters in the house. Before you know it, they’ll be teenagers. I thought it better to pre-empt any potential conflicts. Now they’ve got a sink each’.

With time they became great friends, the architect and the businessman. So, from time to time, Saunders is a guest at the house. How does that feel? Can he see any faults? Does he find typos in the finished piece? ‘It happens,’ says Saunders. ‘But most mistakes can be spotted on the computer screen. Working in 3D makes it so much easier. But, yes, sometimes you find mistakes. On the other hand, good architecture can stand for a lot.’

His firm operates around the world. Todd Saunders is, among other things, involved in a large project in Istanbul. Perhaps he is more playful now, than when he designed Solstad. A lot of his work is reminiscent of the energy and creative imagination of the Case Study-movement. But Villa Solstad is still unconventional. Open plan is unusual in Norway.

Grip smoked oak from the Innovation series was chosen for the kitchen, a plain cupboard door with an integrated grip. ‘Kvänum’s kitchen is great in this setting,’ notes Saunders. ‘It fits perfectly.’

The open plan solution demands a uniform style. Two parallel worktops in dark espresso give a furniture feel, the integrated grip profiles highlight the lines. The white goods are concealed and the tall cabinets are in white laminate with edging profiles in solid smoked oak. No wall cabinets or extractors disrupt the endless view.

Grand and wild, soft and mild,’ Sissel Kyrkjebø sings in a tribute song to the West Country, from the early 1900s. Varg Veum doesn’t think that a rainy autumnal landscape in west Norway is anything to write home about.

Still, the land of fjords, with the snow-covered mountains in the background is strongly associated with Norwegian national romanticism and earthbound patriotism, Johan Christian Dahl’s paintings and Edvard Grieg’s music, log cabins and berths.
Villa Solstad, on the other hand, levitates like a white box kite in the sky, soaring in the western wind. It is unlike everything else. Yet, the house is built from the same mix of materials as the buildings from a hundred years ago – wood, stone, and glass.
Had Henry Ford lived today, his Model T would have looked completely different. ‘The same goes for houses,’ says Todd Saunders. It’s as simple as that.

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