Northern light | Monocle

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Traverse City, a place once famous for its mental asylum, sits near Lake Michigan in the northwest corner of Michigan State. The institution in question is now a collection of restaurants and shops. And the town, with its rolling hills and acres of sour cherry orchards, has become the darling of the modern farmer movement. But a modern architecture hub it isn’t.

When cancer researcher Bonnie Sloane and her husband Doug Yingst, a cell biologist, planned to build a contemporary lakeside retreat near Traverse City, they were initially worried about planting such a house in a traditional area. “Some modern homes have been built here and people have reacted almost violently,” Yingst explains. “We wanted a place where you could swim, get lost in woods and stay off computers.”

They wanted somewhere that reflected the sense of style they had developed over a lifetime of travelling and collecting art and pottery from around the world, being out in the world and doing things. They chose architect David Salmela – a fellow Midwesterner – to build their home because of his minimalist approach and shared love for northern climates. Salmela, a self-taught architect who grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota, is a modernist who understands the human need for comfort, warmth and the north country’s fleeting sun. He was instantly taken by the 16-acre site. “It’s quite a place,” he says. “The trees are about 100ft tall and there’s an indefinable quality there. In summer, it’s quite mysterious.”

A crucial element in the project was how he orientated the house on the site. He decided to magnify the steepness of the hill. The effect is dramatic and the house seems to fall away down the hill to the lake. “One of the reasons we hired David was that he appreciated not just the lake view but the trees and forest,” Yingst says. “Other architects who came wanted to build a house that faced the lake and ignored the six acres of woods.”

Salmela placed the house at an angle to the lake, so that from anywhere in the house, you can see lake but also the trees. “Most people buy property to look at the lake. They don’t realise that looking through trees at mountains, a lake and a river is more intriguing than looking straight at it,” he says.

The driveway, which doubles as a tobogganing hill in winter, needs a four-wheel drive. It ends at a neat line-up of perfectly proportioned black boxes. Three are garages, and the taller box doubles as a workshop and storage space for skis, kayaks, snowshoes and fishing rods. It’s where they bathe the dog, tie fishing flies and put up the odd extra guest. “A stereotypical criticism of American residences is that the garages are so grossly large,” says Salmela. “I didn’t want a large garage to diminish the significance of the house. Instead, I built four diminutive structures that are like sculptures.” From the black boxes a concrete walkway winds under a pergola to the glass front door of the house, a rectangular structure with beams and glass every three metres (there is light in the house all times of day, from all sides). The power of the natural landscape is felt on the inside too.

It feels warm and comfortable in a Scandinavian way, due to silent geothermal heating, the triple-paned windows that keep in the heat and the uniformity of materials. The bright red kitchen, sunk five steps down from the living space, is a focal point of the interior – a central communal area and a place for entertaining. The clean, clutter-free interior is surprisingly cosy and there are elements of Salmela’s imaginative Finnish practicality everywhere, not just in the natural wood interior. There’s even a sauna in a separate building, with simple wooden benches and dramatic lake views.

“It’s not a classical house,” says Salmela. “It doesn’t have a single motive other than to live in it and make all the activities that would occur in the house to be as exciting as possible.” It’s not just a show home either. On completion last year, the house received a grand award at the 11th annual Residential Architecture Design Awards.

Above all, though, it’s just a wonderful place to live. “David was a good fit for us,” says Sloane. “We needed someone who understands weather. There’s so much happening every season with the light and the sky – and this house is wonderful all year round.”

Salmela’s CV

Self-trained architect David Salmela opens his own practice in Duluth, Minnesota

Receives National AIA Honor Awards for Architecture for Brandenburg’s Ravenwood Studio in Ely, Minnesota

Wins National AIA Honor Awards for Architecture for Emerson Sauna in rural Duluth, Minnesota

Book about the architect entitled “Salmela/Architect” is published. Written by Thomas Fisher, professor and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota

Receives Grand Award at Residential Architecture Design Awards for Yingst retreat

May release of “The Invisible Element of Place: The Architecture of David Salmela” by Thomas Fisher (University of Minnesota Press)

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