Making a place’s invisible elements visible: The architecture of David Salmela

Professor and dean at the College of Design, University of Minnesota

When I started to write about architect David Salmela’s buildings more than a decade ago, I never knew I would end up becoming his chronicler. My previous career as an editor for one of the leading journals in my field meant that I wrote about the work of a wide range of architects, and never about just one practitioner’s range of work, as I have done with David. But having just published my second book on his work, I find myself in the unlikely role of being the world’s expert on David Salmela.

I don’t know if I deserve such a position, but I do know that David deserves such attention, for he has emerged as one of the most talented architects of his generation. As the dean of a college of design, I find it fascinating that someone who never attended architecture school could achieve the success and international renown that David has. This is not to say that aspiring architects should not get a professional education; to get licensed in most states, such an education is now a requirement. But David’s example does show that great talents prevail, whether properly schooled or not.

I also value David’s ability to create one compelling building after another under conditions that many architects would find impossible. He works largely alone, out of his own house in Duluth, Minnesota — far from the big cities that house most of the world’s architectural talent — and he works mostly for middle-class clients, designing houses, cabins, and saunas for relatively modest budgets. That he has won more design awards for this work than almost any sole practitioner in the country counters a myth all too common in the architecture culture that important buildings require patron-like clients with big budgets. Not true, as David has repeatedly shown.

Another myth his work defies involves the supposed “divide” among architects between the avant-garde and the rear guard. Like the partisan politics that so polarizes this country, a similar division exists among architects, with the avant-garde proposing “radical” and often utopian visions for a high-tech future and with the rear guard responding with “nostalgic” and highly populist versions of historic buildings and neighborhoods. To his credit, David’s work occupies neither camp. His architecture remains firmly rooted in the culture and climate of the upper Midwest, with allusions to both historic black creosoted log buildings and the minimalist white modern architecture of northern Europe. At the same time, his buildings have a frugality and environmental awareness that reflects the rural ethos of the Scandinavian immigrants who settled the northern reaches of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

The title of the book, “The Invisible Element of Place,” comes from a Wallace Stevens poem that an English professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth sent to David after seeing David’s house. I decided to use a line from the poem as the book’s title because it so aptly captures the invisible and ultimately indescribable qualities that make David Salmela’s architecture such an inseparable element of this place and its people.


Thomas Fisher is author of The Invisible Element of Place: The Architecture of David Salmela and Salmela Architect, both with photographs by Peter Bastianelli-Kerze and both published by University of Minnesota Press. He is professor and dean at the College of Design, University of Minnesota. You can also follow him on Twitter at @MnDesignDean.

“For anyone who’s ever marveled at the purity and austerity of homes designed by David Salmela, The Invisible Element of Place provides a fascinating look at the work of one of Minnesota’s premier architects.”
—Mpls/St. Paul Magazine

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