Photographs by Bent René Synnevåg
Architect Todd Saunders is most often lauded for his inventive use of form—a fact that tends to rile him up. “People think we’re such strong form architects and that that’s all we think about in our designs,” he says one evening by phone from Bergen, Norway, where his 21-year-old firm is based. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth! Form is often the last thing that comes together, and it is built around a design that puts the way people use the space first. We’re not just a bunch of aesthetic princes.”
Flipping through Canada-born Saunders’s portfolio, however, it’s easy to see why form dominates some viewers’ understanding of his work. From his five-star Newfoundland Fogo Island Inn, an imposing block with one end balanced on a cluster of stiltlike wooden poles, to the vertiginous curve of a fjordside wilderness lookout in eastern Norway, Saunders designs structures that are rooted in modernism—but he reinterprets and elevates the canon through gestures such as arcing façades and eye-catching geometric protrusions.
One Saunders house, positioned on the shore of a Norwegian inlet at the country’s southern tip, belongs to a family of four with a generational connection to the land. The homeowner, a talented soprano named Bente, grew up in the area, and she and her husband, Svein, a tech entrepreneur, lived for most of their marriage in Bergen, with a few years spent in Oslo. Yet they knew they eventually wanted to raise their two children (a son and a daughter, now 13 and 10 years old) in the region.
The journey back home started in 2007 when the couple purchased a waterfront plot with a modern cabin that Svein describes as “well built and optimized for summer use.” Initially, they used it as a vacation retreat, but in 2010 they relocated there permanently. Soon they realized it was too small for their growing family. “We thought we could remodel the existing [structure],” Svein says, “but due to various regulations and the cost, it was easier to build new.”
They gave the old cabin to an acquaintance, who hauled it to a rugged site in the mountains about 90 miles away, and then cycled through various architects, seeking the right one for the job. The couple had admired Saunders’s aesthetic since they first saw his work on the cover of a magazine. The featured project, a family home on the southwestern coast of Bergen, spoke to them in more ways than one. “Bente really liked the curves and the organic shape of the building,” Svein says. “I liked the way it interacted with the landscape.”
Channeling these favored elements, Saunders designed a single-story, L-shaped three-bedroom home with a long glass façade that offers sweeping views of the coastline. Public areas (the kitchen, the living room, and recreational rooms) are located in the north-south portion, while bedrooms are in the wing extending off this section. A smaller guesthouse, built for Bente’s parents, sits just to the north of the main structure.
“The family already lived on the plot for several years, so they know it intimately: they know where the winds hit the strongest, where to best catch the sunset as it goes into the water, and where the light is [best],” says Saunders, who incorporated that knowledge into the design. “They also wanted a house that was easy to navigate and maintain.” Svein even worked out a series of calculations to ensure the house was built on a spot where the roof wouldn’t obstruct sightlines from the house behind them.
For the build, Saunders enlisted local company Byggmester Øyvind Bakkevold AS, which the architect says is the best carpentry firm he’s ever worked with. “I usually interview three or four carpenters for a project,” Saunders says. “I knew within five minutes of talking to [cofounder] Øyvind Bakkevold that he had the same respectful approach [as our firm] and understood the importance of great craftsmanship.” Since Saunders couldn’t be onsite for much of the build, Bakkevold stayed in constant contact, sending him pictures several times a week—especially when the crew was working with tricky angles, or before they cut a board to fit around a rock. “There was a mutual respect for the work, and no ego,” Saunders says.
The finished project appears to hover over the land, its curved form a reflection of the plot’s rocky contours and a contemporary contrast to the angular, boxlike houses in the surrounding town. Wraparound terraces provide sheltered areas (the winds can blow extremely hard at times) to enjoy the views, and stone steps lead down to a pool. Portland-based Swedish designer Hannes Wingate created the interior spaces, which embrace a traditional Scandinavian palette of white walls and oak floors from Dinesen. Slatted timber ceilings echo the exterior façade in a riff on traditional regional building materials. Thoughtful, human-centric details abound, from the placement of the closet in the master bedroom (“to avoid open doors obstructing the view,” Saunders says) to a dedicated area in the entryway where the kids can take off their boots and store their backpacks.
Exploring the land is central to the lives of the youngsters, who often spend summer afternoons catching clams and crabs or joining their parents to paddle kayaks around the bay. For Saunders, himself an avid kayaker and outdoor lover, this is a perfect, albeit ironic, setup: a home designed to get people outside. Even during the frigid winter months, the family can enjoy their property from the home’s generous terraces and windows. “We oriented the house so you get a different perspective wherever you go inside,” Saunders says. “The view is always changing as you walk from room to room.” It’s compelling evidence that even in the face of flawless form, nature will always be king.