Wenche Selmer. Domestic architecture

by Alberto Ballesteros Barea and Veronica Gallina

Wenche Selmer (1920-1998) was a Norwegian female architect, who mainly focused her work on residential programs. All her projects are small-scale based, either individual houses or small summer residences and cabins.

The aim of our analysis was to compare the main aspects of her approach to domestic life, emphasizing some relevant features of her designs and showing the evolution throughout the years.  To do so, we have selected four case studies among her works, two houses and two small cabins. The difference between these two categories is not only the size of the buildings, but also the use. Selmer was concerned with the role the house would play in the family life, and she would not conceive a cabin which was meant to be used only short periods during the year in the same way as a permanent house in the city.

Selmer was also in close contact with her clients, and tried to meet all their needs and wishes incorporating them in her designs. The architect showed great understanding in the kind of people that was going to live in the house, as life for couples without children or aging pensioners differed from larger families with children and teenagers. The house mirrored the family life.


In terms of volume, the main difference lies both in size and shape of the roof. In the cabins, Selmer prefers to continue in line with the building tradition of the place in which they are located. They present the same appearance as traditional Norwegian summer houses, with tiled saddle roofs, whereas in the houses she tries to explore modernist solutions, either flat or sloping roofs.


The wood plays a major role in Selmer’s architecture, from the structure itself to surfaces and interior furnishing. Throughout her long practice, she explored different woodwork solutions for the façades, using wooden sidings as a rhythmic element. For instance, exterior siding can be vertical board-and-batten or horizontal, and the boards arrangement can also create a line of shadow which changes the perception of surfaces.


Her houses are opened to an outdoor space, such as a terrace or a garden, mainly south orientated. She showed concern regarding the importance of sunlight, particularly in the summerhouses, where there was no electricity. In the cabins, the openings keep more traditional proportions, whereas in the houses she prefers to use full-height windows which can be sled so as to open the interior spaces to the outside. This way, nature becomes also part of the house.



In habitual residences, the space distribution is fixed, in contrast to the cabins, where a less extended use allows more flexibility. The kitchen integration within the living spaces is noteworthy. Selmer as a woman herself did not want housewives to be confined in the kitchen, so she opened them and emphasised their role in the house. Another significant feature of her projects is the vindfang, a small transition space in the entrance area in Norwegian housing tradition. In her first projects, this space is small, fitting only one person. However, in later works, this space becomes bigger as she combines it with storage areas for firewood, skis or boots.


In her designs, Selmer incorporates sliding doors which allow different space configurations. When closed, the living spaces are partitioned in a rather conventional way –living room, dining room, office– and by opening them, the rooms become a single space, making the house adaptable to different situations.


One significant feature that is repeated throughout her work is the placing of the dining table by a window. This way, even by sitting inside one can experience the outer nature.

Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Selmer also regards the fireplace as the core of the house. Made in brick, in all her projects the fireplace stands out in the living room and is further used as an articulating element between spaces.Fireplace1

Text and drawings by Alberto Ballesteros Barea and Veronica Gallina.

TOSTRUP, Elisabeth (2002). Norwegian wood. The thoughtful architecture of Wenche Selmer. Oslo, Gaidaros Forlag.
Pictures from the book.