Wenche Selmer, Romanticism or Pragmatism?

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Wenche Selmer was a Norwegian architect born in the 1920’s. Her teacher and inspiration was architect Knut Knutsen which may say a lot about her way of building houses. Many of her projects are located in the South West coast of Norway. Two characteristic features of her architecture are adapting and shaping houses to terrain and constructing only the necessary. Looking closely at her work, it is clear that she was inspired by local construction methods. But having said that, it is also possible to see that her structures are very modern and made in ways that are similar in other countries. Therefore, during the analysis I started to question in what way, or what scale, is it that she was inspired by tradition/the local.  For example, you can see similarities to Japanese architecture in both her planning and structures. Also the connection between interior and outdoor areas is an important and obvious element in both Selmer’s and Japanese architecture.

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Her Summer House in Hellersøya is located in the south coast of Norway. The Summer House is next to the sea and that defines a lot of the requirements for the house. Selmer’s clever planning comprises the houses between rocks and creates an environment protected from the wind and unpleasant weather. The simple composition of the Summer House, sauna and guesthouse is in fact quite ingenious and precise. The Summer House and sauna are planned so that behind them there is a space which can be used as a private backyard. Also both sauna and guest houses interact with huge rocks in the site where there is sometimes only a 10cm gap between them. Different houses are connected with paved stone areas which mimic the rocks from the site. Also wooden docks are cut so that they almost look like they are growing from the ground.

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There is only four different materials in the main yard which together create the unique atmosphere: wood, stone, water and rocks. Two of these were originally there. Almost all of the coast of Hellersøya Island is formed from smooth rocks, which is very typical to coastal areas in the region. The other element is water. Selmer’s architecture wants to highlight these materials and adds only two components which are untreated pine wood panels or planks, and stone paved areas and walls. One could say that this house is joyless, without color or a garden full of plants, but I think everything about this site is honest. Main values of life are cherished and Selmer is planning only for necessity, not for idealistic luxury.

When you visit this area you can easily relate to the romantic idea of living in nature and feel the time stop while watching the ocean. But what happens when you dismantle this project into pieces and start looking at the structure of the house? Can there be found elements or systems that characterised Selmer? Even though the first step of her planning was to get the feeling of the place, she was also very accurate with detailing.

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Wall structure

Walls are one of the two main elements that define the exterior of the architecture. Wenche Selmer usually worked with a certain tone of dark red paint for many of her summer houses by the coast (which is typical of Norway), but in this house she let walls to be untreated. With time, this caused the external cladding to turn gray. The frame system of the wall is similar to what is used in contemporary architecture, but it is interesting to notice that there is no insulation. The same applies to the roof structure. This tells a story of modest living and how this summer house has been used, living with nature but on nature’s conditions. Also until the 1990s there was no electricity or running water in the summer house. Thus, spending time in this house must have been very different compared to today’s luxury cottages.

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Roof

One of the main things one can see from the roof are the beautifully patinated tiles. The roof is made from a simple wooden structure, but all the materials are long lasting, and the tile’s appearance will get better with time. Another interesting aspect the is the primary and secondary structures, which can be seen from the inside: they are not hidden and in this way they bring a unique character to the interior.

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Windows and doors

For Wenche Selmer’s architecture, light is a very important aspect. In this summer house rooms are rather small but when windows are located on almost every side of the room, they  become spacious and full of light. Windows and doors seem to be most decorative elements of the summer house. Dividing the glass in smaller window segments is a traditional Norwegian detail. Decoration is subtle in other parts of the house, where the door’s horizontal paneling contrasts the vertical paneling in walls. Nothing too overwhelming, but very simple and fascinating.

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Sources:

Norwegian Wood: The Thoughtful Architecture of Wenche Selmer

Illustrations:

by Heini Huikka, base material collected 18.11.2016