Elements of Spacemaking by Wenche Selmer

Reshuffling of spaces, openness of the plan, efficient yet effortless use of space, are all characteristic of Wenche Selmer’s practice. In a house for a Norwegian politician, all elements both of physical architectonic and immaterial social come together to demonstrate Selmer’s visions.

The house built in 1955 for Cato Hambro seems to be just an ordinary dwelling, yet a closer look reveals that it is a perfect example to look closer at the practice of Wenche Selmer (1920-1998), a Norwegian postwar architect. Selmer often described as a female pioneer in Norwegian architecture, was known for modern, yet at the same time traditional way of using wood in residential projects.

“The abstract notion of space is — physically perceivable in objects around us –. The three dimensions of length, breadth and height along with the fourth dimension of time give us a tangible framework to understand physical reality through relative comparisons and judgements of its component parts.” (Pandya, 2016: 11)

Figure 1. A house for Cato Hambro – a single-family house with two floors and a basement, accompanied by a small shed. (Järvinen, 2018).

 

This text will examine and unpack the anatomy of Selmer’s architectonic articulation through the spatial elements that make up the home for Cato Hambro. Tracking the implicit fundamentals Selmer is reflecting in her architecture – the dimensions of a. environment, b. contemporary life and c. material – with a point of view in how they correspond to the physical and spatial architectonic elements, will help to understand Selmer’s way of thinking and designing – and her heritage in Norwegian architecture today.

 

a. Dimensions of environment

When designing a project, the surrounding was certainly an important factor for Selmer. Locating on Eikstubben, in Bærum, a 20-25-minute metro drive away from Oslo city centre, this housing project is arising from between the pine trees. The house is in constant dialogue with the verdant site.

From outside the house for Cato Hambro; enebolig i skog, a house in the forest, as introduced in Byggekunst nr 1, is designed to blend into its surroundings, playing with the roof gliding away from the mass and thus making the house appear smaller in size. Subordinated to nature, it is gently taking its place according to the landscape and the garden.

 

Figure 2. Examining the dynamic and the proportions along with the elements of the house, through facades. One element is standing out in each of the facades: the chimney. It presents a gestural twin to the tree trunks on the site, and by introducing the placement of the heart of the house, the fireplace, it attaches the house on its site. The vertical panel boarding used in both the main building and the shed creates a continuum to the vertical lines of the tree trunks. (Järvinen, 2018).

 

Looking at the facades (figure 2), the roof is a visible image maker and even more so, a central element with which Selmer allocates between the interior spaces and surroundings. The roof, with its volumetric diversity, is a modulator of hierarchies between inside and outside. Selmer’s explorations within the plan and spatial expresses are thus contributing to the form as well. Especially the volumetric roof, narrating of the inner volume, is a rhetorical device of Selmer’s.

 

Figures 3 and 4. Selmer’s roof typology first as introduced here on Eikstubben, and later in smaller scale in her own cabin. The pitched roof, one of Selmer’s trademarks especially in her cabins, is here, on Eikstubben, combined with a monopitch roof on top of the living room, sloping away from the mass. (Selmer, after 1955) (Selmer, n.d. A).

 

The house is further on creating a relationship with its surroundings through windows, as they offer a physical link to the external environment. In this house, the openings are placed in an asymmetrical way and then highlighted from the dark wall with a white paint – as if inviting call to approaching the house.

Speaking of approaching the house, the transition in arrival is something Selmer takes into special consideration. Entrance with a particularly narrow vindfang, a small room at the entrance (figure 5), enables a tactful transition from outside to inside.

 

Figure 5. Vindfang, one of Selmer’s trademarks, constructs a humble and considered spatial experience when travelling between inside and outside. (Järvinen, 2018).

 

b. Dimensions of contemporary life

The notion of the environment in Selmer’s projects can be expanded to apply the cultural environment and heritage in which they were designed. When observing Selmer’s role in the history of both Norwegian architecture and female architects in Norway, the dimension of time is crucial and possibly the strongest element behind her position in the domestic architecture.

For Selmer, all comes down to creating a scene, a framework for comfortable family life. She examines the basic human needs in the 20th century and turns them into architecture in a careful and modest way. Tostrup describes her style in making this as “neorealism with a personal touch” (2006: 18).

Selmer herself writes about the house for Cato Hambro in Byggekunst Nr.1 (1957: 12, author’s own translation):

“The house rises into the series of spaces where it is important to provide the housewife with nice and comfortable working conditions, with the sun on the kitchen, which in turn has contact with the garden, as well as other rooms of the house. In addition, the piano can be played without awakening the sleeping children, and in the office, one can concentrate without children constantly interrupting.”

The house for Cato Hambro indeed responses to the contemporary needs and functions arising in the 1950s. The plan (figure 6) can verify this, especially looking at the spatial organization on the first floor. Firstly, on the left-hand side from the vestibule, there is an office, connected with the house but still assorted from the rest of the spaces. Taking the right-hand side, one enters the living and dining spaces of the family house, all of which are linked together with a visual connection. The kitchen is locating just next to the representative, more public spaces of the house. It is now connected to the communal spaces, rather than being isolated. The plan is providing recourses to enable combining both work and family life, and thus, announcing the amendments in society in the 1950s.

 

Figure 6. Plans. (Järvinen, 2018).

 

Once entering the house, one will meet the most public spaces – office, living and dining room – of the house. Then again, upstairs is the private spaces of the family. Here are the bedrooms, a toilet, and a bathroom. All the secondary spaces, a stock for food, another one for wood and a drying room, are all placed in the basement. The house is almost like growing from the ground, having the spaces supporting the life in the house, or in other words, the roots of the house life, in the basement; then having a layer of semipublic spaces in between, and finally ascending to the most private spaces of the house (figure 7).

 

Figure 7. The layers and levels of privacy, placed on different floors.  (Järvinen, 2018).

 

The stairs (fig. 8), as a vertical circulation element, are integrating the different levels together. They accomplish the functional needs of transition inside the house and are thus a vital part of the schema. Aligned to the exterior wall, the stairs give the main role to the functions of the spaces, while offering a momentous sequence between spaces.

 

Figure 8. Detail drawing of the house’s stairs. The careful pencil drawings indicate that Selmer was in fact designing through details. (Selmer, 1954).

 

c. Dimensions of material

Almost all her projects being wooden, Selmer became known for her unique manner of using wood in an extremely talented and elegant way. Selmer combined the gems of international trends in modernism with the treasury of traditions in Norway, using “wood as a vehicle of architectural thoughtfulness” (Tostrup 2001: 135-152).

This is significant especially taking into consideration the time frame during which Selmer started her architectural practice: there was a shortage of building materials during the years following World War II. In fact, this might have even had an empowering effect on Selmer’s stylistic development.

 

Figure 8. (Selmer, 1957).

 

Selmer, being true to the material, based her plans according to the dimension of local wood. Overall it can be said, that she, appreciating the limitations and possibilities of wood, learned to articulate in accordance with the material, remaining loyal to it, but at the same time expanding its restrictions.

The properties of local material imposed some limitations to structural dimensions, but it clearly never became a delimiting factor in Selmer’s projects and neither did it here on Eikstubben. This, in fact, is one of the most significative differences between traditional domestic architecture and Selmer’s architecture, which in its modern way of exploring spaces and architecture overall takes one radical step ahead from the traditions. For example, while in vernacular architecture the use of openings is always economically reasoned (when it comes to the sizes and amounts of them), for Selmer openings are instruments with which the spatial measurements can be expanded (figures 9 and 10).

 

Figures 9 and 10. The living room and dining room are enjoying the scenery within the largest openings in the house. With this notable and binding visual connection between exterior and interior in these specific rooms, from which space then flows into the kitchen, Selmer highlights these rooms spatially as perhaps the most important ones in the house. (Selmer, n.d. B).

 

Selmer’s thoughtfulness in architecture – a shining example for architects of the future

It is evident that the roots of Selmer’s characteristic style lie in the cultural tendencies in society during the first years of her career. In the 1950’s Norway was slowly, yet firmly, building the foundations for the society it has now evolved into. This period, clearly a turning point in the modern history of Norway, undeniably awakes nostalgia and gratitude in the Norway of today, and Selmer in a way has given a face to these emotions, especially concerning she was fighting for not only Norway as a nation but also for women to be considered as equal members of society.

For Selmer, the 1950’s, an era full of contradictions between traditional building style and modernism, was a chance to experiment, explore and move boundaries (Tostrup 2006: 23) and she formed a fascinating way of creating architecture. With a foundation in both traditions, she managed to bring new perspectives to the field and in this way innovate her own architectural language. This was, in fact, her talent; being able to carefully point out and manifest something so very Norwegian in a sophisticated way, yet in a way that strongly connects with its time – and this is what she will be remembered and honoured for.

 

 

 

References:

Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections.

Pandya, Y. (2016). Elements of Spacemaking. Ahmedabad: Vastu-Shilpa Foundation for Studies and Research in Environmental Design. 216 p. ISBN: 978-81-89995-74-4

Selmer, W. (1957), Enebolig i skog. Byggekunst. Nr.1. p.12-13. Available: <https://arkitektur-n.no/prosjekter/enebolig-i-skog?cat=19>

Tostrup, E. (2001). Wood as a vehicle of architectural thoughtfulness: Wenche Selmer – architect. In: Mäntysalo, R. and Nyman, K., ed., Proceedings of The Nordic Research Symposium: Architecture and materials. Oulu: Oulu University Press. p. 135-152. ISBN: 951-42-5794-4.

Tostrup, E. & Selmer, W. (2006). Norwegian wood: the thoughtful architecture of Wenche Selmer. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. 208 p. ISBN: 978-1-56898-593-0.

 

Photos:

Selmer, J. (after 1955), Enebolig for Cato Hambro. Photograph. Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections. Viewed October 2018. <http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/object/NMK.2015.0375.010.001>

Selmer, J. (n.d. A), Egen hytte på Beltesholmen. Photograph. Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections. Viewed November 2018. < http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/object/NAMF.00014.002>

Selmer, J. (n.d. B), Interior photographs of the house for Cato Hambro. Photograph. Byggekunst. Nr.1. p.12-13. Available: <https://arkitektur-n.no/prosjekter/enebolig-i-skog?cat=19>

Selmer, W. (1954). Detail drawing of the stairs in the house for Cato Hambro. Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections. Viewed 03.10.2018.

Featured image: Selmer, J. (1957), Villa for C. Hambro. Photograph. Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections. Viewed October 2018. <http://samling.nasjonalmuseet.no/en/object/NAMF.01638.001>

 

 

Illustrations:

Järvinen, Saimi. (2018), Base material collected 03.10.2018 from Nasjonalmuseet, The Architecture Collections.