Like any good Minnesotan, David Salmela keeps a fire pit out back. But his isn’t a ring of stone or a wrought-iron cage. It’s a minimalist totem pole: a 12-foot-tall concrete shaft, stark white and rectangular. On first approach, it’s as alien as the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A narrow trough slices down its front, and when the sun dips low, Salmela packs the base with logs, sets them aflame, and watches the smoke climb through the open-faced pillar. He calls it an “un-chimney.” When most people have a fire, they’re left with only a mess of char. When Salmela and his wife, Gladys, have one, they get a piece of art to go with it. Today, the “un-chimney” is empty of wood. But a ghostly black smear creeps up the interior walls.
“The idea is that you have the fire at night, and then the next day you have the memory of the fire,” the architect explains. Then, perhaps concerned he’s come off as too poetic, he adds, “Because most of the time with a campfire, you get up in the morning, and it’s kind of ugly.”
Salmela, who just turned 60, is leery of pretension. It’s his hallmark. Unlike some of his contemporaries, whose open, glass-walled rooms communicate an urbane, gallery-like refinement, Salmela keeps it woodsy. He takes distinctly modernist traits—the cantilevered floors of Frank Lloyd Wright, the austere functionality of the Bauhaus, the strong horizontal lines of the Futurists—and stews them in the regional flavors of the North Shore. Some unfinished basswood slats here. A little native prairie grass there. His own home, a stack of pitch-black boxes wedged into a hillside overlooking Lake Superior in Duluth, even incorporates pieces of the Canadian Shield into its design. Existing boulders, which form the house’s foundation, hide Salmela’s house from the street. A glacier of granite spills into the garage. Long balconies, made from unfinished wood the same color of the hillside brush, provide further camouflage.
This reverence for the region, a counterpoint to the daring design, has made Salmela Minnesota’s most famous living architect. (Just this May, his national prize total climbed to 28. No other single Minnesota architect has won as many.) It’s also made him a beguiling contradiction.
“I’m always struck by how David manages to be regionally sensitive, culturally appropriate, and yet totally modern at the same time,” says Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. In May, Fisher published The Invisible Element of Place, a detailed look at Salmela’s 50 most recent projects, the vast majority of them cabins and country homes.
Modern architecture was once meant to be universal, a style to be dropped into any metropolis worldwide and instantly signal progress. But Salmela’s buildings, unusual as they are, could only ever exist in the Upper Midwest. In fact, minus a handful of rare outliers—projects in the works include a retreat on the coast of Ireland; an equestrian community in Dutchess County, New York; a Wyoming ranch; and a Virginia farm—they do only exist in the Upper Midwest.
In other words, Salmela’s un-chimney may smack of white-cube artiness, but, singed by fire, it smells unmistakably of Minnesota.
Salmela has recently grown a moustache. Right now he’s playing with it, pinching a few well-trimmed white hairs at the corner. It’s a great everyman gesture: the farmer chewing the blade of grass. “I wanted to be an architect,” he begins. “But, how would I say it? I’m Finnish. I’m also Minnesotan. We tend to underrate ourselves. ‘Are we really good enough to do this?’” We’re sitting in the Salmelas’ dining room, which isn’t a dining room at all, just a table placed at the center of their open-plan living space—a skybox of blond wood and clean sunlight. Three walls of windows offer a cockpit view of the water below. Park Point’s ribbon of island stretches off into Superior Bay.
Salmela is tracing his career trajectory and, perhaps, burnishing his mystique. As many design students know, Salmela is famously self-trained. He dropped out of the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities after only one semester, not even setting foot in the school of architecture (though it would later grant him an honorary doctorate). In 1985, when he won his first award from the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects for a project in Cohasset, Minnesota, it was the first time in 25 years that a practitioner from outside the Twin Cities had been so highly honored. Consider also that Salmela builds mostly on a small scale—his residential projects average only around 3,000 to 5,000 square feet—and for an Upper Midwest clientele whose wealth pales in comparison to most big-city design consumers, and it’s easy to see him as a folk hero, the rural Robin Hood bringing modernism to the north woods. Fisher calls him “the architectural equivalent of Garrison Keillor.”
But the renegade streak is there. You can see it in his eyes. Or rather, his eyewear—dark, elegantly rounded frames, the same kind worn by Le Corbusier. And sure enough, even growing up on a farm, a second-generation Finn in tiny Sebeka, Minnesota, the seeds of a design career were incubating. “Nobody was professing to be artistic,” he says of his childhood. But his dad was a good dresser, and his mother prided herself on her immaculate gardens. “But there was certainly a refined elegance.”
He discovered city buildings via pictures in the Star Tribune. And he read—design books, architecture magazines, art encyclopedias. He still has the Time magazine that first introduced him to Le Corbusier. By the time he finished junior high, he knew all the major modernists of the era. He remembers, as a high-school freshman, asking the librarian to order a book on Frank Lloyd Wright.
In high school, he toured the Walker Art Center for the first time. “I went home and painted a Jackson Pollack, probably the size of this table…. It was New York City in our living room there in Sebeka,” he recalls. But college failed to impress. Salmela pegs his dropout to both the tedium of doing pre-requisites and the pride born of his self-study (“I probably knew more about architecture than most architecture students when they start”). He enrolled in a quick-and-dirty drafting course at a school above a drug store at Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street, then parlayed the certificate into a job at a Minneapolis engineering firm. After four years of drawing plans for grain elevators, he landed his first architecture job in Hibbing. He worked for a year, then bounced to a firm in Virginia, Minnesota, in 1970, where he stayed for the next 20 years. But the Iron Range wasn’t always welcoming of his contemporary streak. In 1975, he worked on one of his first progressive projects—his team reclaimed a polluted site in Virginia, and converted it into a new headquarters for the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. The building was long, low, and flat-roofed. “It was elegantly unusual,” Salmela remembers. “Like seeing a Ferrari for the first time.” But it didn’t jibe with the local aesthetic. People driving by stopped to call his office to complain.
The building was one of many early projects that Salmela saw altered or torn down. “He’s alluded to painful experiences where he was doing things that clients didn’t like,” says Fisher. The lesson? A building has to mesh with its community.
“What I started to realize is you have to understand the public,” Salmela says, tugging at his moustache again. “It became less about what I would do. You have to design things so that people take ownership. That’s where modernism had problems.”
Before us is the sauna—perhaps the most famous sauna in the world. It is the only sauna to be included in the Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture. It is also a geometric impossibility. The triangular prism of its roof projects out into the woods and hovers, as if someone had shoved it clear off of its brick base. A skinny chimney—a real one this time—sprouts from the lower level, which is topped with a lawn of prairie grass. We’re standing in a clearing near Cooke Lake, on the outskirts of Duluth. Behind us is one of Salmela’s more conservative buildings, the Emerson residence, a gable-roofed manse inspired by the traditional farmhouses of Scandinavia.
But if the house seems reserved, the sauna is defiant. It is Salmela’s most abstract work, and it speaks to an ambition that must, I think, expand beyond the Upper Midwest. As we enter the cold sauna, I ask him about today’s great international experimenters, the Zaha Hadids and Jean Nouvels.
“I’m suspicious of doing projects outside of the region,” Salmela says. “What do I know about those other places? Maybe Zaha Hadid knows every culture in the world, because she’s able to design everywhere. I’m not that smart.”
A stairway leads to the attic-like second level. It’s a triangular skyway capped on both ends by a glass wall—“Like a FedEx shipping tube,” Salmela says.
The space works as a cooling room. When the brick oven below gets too unbearable, you climb up here to chill out. He may not be Hadid, but it’s clear there are two cultures Salmela does know quite well.
“In Finland, you would just walk naked out into the cold air,” he says. “Of course in Minnesota, you’d be put in jail for that.”
Gregory J. Scott is Minnesota Monthly’s staff writer.