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Why Architect Todd Saunders Feels at Home in the Fjords

Taking advantage of Norway's long summer days, architect Todd Saunders enjoys a neo-Nordic feast with friends from Bergen's vibrant cultural community at his striking contemporary residence. 

On an unseasonably warm evening in early June, sunlight floods the second-floor kitchen of Villa S, the self-designed home of Todd Saunders, a Canadian architect based in Bergen, Norway

The three-story, blackened-timber house, with multiple terraces and wide-open living spaces, is perfect for entertaining, though Saunders’ hectic travel schedule—seven countries in the previous four weeks— rarely allows for lavish parties. Casual dinners at home better suit this laid-back Newfoundland native, who tonight has invited over a coterie of Bergen culturati, a mix of old friends and new. 

Left: Architect Todd Saunders clad his house in Bergen, Norway, in blackened timber and designed a dramatic cantilever that creates a sheltered outdoor space. Right: chefs Lars Brun Halvorsen, left, and Christopher Haatuft in the open kitchen.

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“Bergen has an incredible cultural life for a city of its size,” says Axel Wieder, a German art historian, and the Bergen Kunsthall’s new director, who previously curated exhibitions at Index, the Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, in Stockholm. Bergen may be home to fewer than 300,000 residents, but this rainy university town in the fjords of western Norway is renowned for its underground music scene, top-notch art institutions, and innovative creative class, as evidenced by the inspiring group that has gathered here. 

“We don’t do this often enough,” proclaims chef Christopher Haatuft, raising a glass to the stylish crowd assembled in Saunders’s sun-drenched eat-in kitchen. “Skål!” Haatuft is coordinating the six-course meal on a night away from his restaurant, Lysverket, a rising star on the Scandinavian culinary scene with a haute-punk attitude and a sustainable, New Nordic ethos.

Left: Langoustine and mushrooms topped with green garlic; Right: one of the place settings.

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Padding around the kitchen barefoot, the heavily tattooed chef—even his toes are inked—describes the meal as hyper-local, or “neo-fjordic,” flashing a gold-tooth-studded grin. Fresh oysters from Stavanger are passed around, and the group descends to the patio to sip aperitifs, to the great delight of Saunders’ Goldendoodle, Jackson, an energetic mop of fluffy white curls.

A group portrait with Saunders’s dog, Jackson.

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Seen from the front yard, the house resembles a late-stage Jenga game writ large: the main living space is raised off the ground on stilts, offering pass-through views of the surrounding woods. “It’s often an architect’s idea in its most radical form,” says Wieder of homes that architects design for themselves. Wieder may be a newcomer to Norway, but not to Saunders’s work.

“He’s known for houses based on a view,” he continues, mentioning Saunders’s project on Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. Although Saunders, 48, has lived in Norway for more than 20 years, he is best known for a series of off-the-grid artist studios and a 29-room inn on Fogo. There his geometric forms are gingerly placed along the rugged coast, often balancing on stilts, a Saunders signature.

“There’s a latitude that I work at,” says Saunders, and so far, it’s been a northerly one. In addition to his structures in Newfoundland, Saunders designed Norway’s award-winning Aurland Lookout, as well as functionalist cabins and contemporary homes throughout Scandinavia, before tackling Villa S, which was conceived with family in mind. Completed in 2015, the rectilinear structure encompasses some 3,770 square feet with a three-story tower that anchors the cantilevered living space. 

Left: Haatuft rings for dinner; Right: guests include editor Hilde Sandvik, left, and fashion designer Alexander Helle, center.

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Ribbon windows and whitewashed wood paneling run through the kitchen, living room, and three bedrooms. The understated furnishings were designed in collaboration with Swedish artist Hannes Wingate.
By lifting the house, Saunders created sheltered outdoor spaces underneath the home, including a rainy-day play area with swings for his two daughters, now 9 and 11. A third-floor reading room filled with children’s books opens onto the rooftop.

Before moving to Bergen, Saunders graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax and McGill University in Montreal. Today, his firm has about a dozen employees in Europe and the Americas. He’s currently doing more residential work in the Americas, including two homes now under construction in Canada.

Houses have long been the bulk of his built portfolio, but that is changing: Saunders recently completed a renovation of the lobby restaurant and bar at the Nordic Light Hotel in Stockholm, as well as the Illusuak Cultural Centre in Nain, a truly isolated spot in mainland Newfoundland and Labrador, that will act as a multifunctional space for the local Inuit population.

Appearing on the second-story terrace, Haatuft, now in his chef’s whites over tight black jeans, rings a handbell to signal the end of cocktail hour. Haatuft has brought Lars Brun Halvorsen, a Lysverket restaurant alumnus and head chef at Haatuft’s new pizzeria, Hoggorm, to help in the kitchen.

Asparagus with smoked-mackerel butter.

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But to cook the first course, he enlists Saunders’s longtime friend T-Michael. Ghanaian-born and previously London-based, T-Michael is a cross-pollinating fashion designer of high-performance rainwear, bespoke suits, and modern men’s kimonos. His talents also extend to the kitchen, where he skillfully sears scallops in a cast-iron skillet without any evident fear of splattering on his gray belted suit (his own design, naturally).

Hovering nearby, Haatuft notes that the scallops had been hand-harvested by a diver friend—“my diving gear is in the back of his boathouse”—who also supplies Lysverket with its fresh-from-the-fjord shellfish. The finished plate pairs the seared scallops with grassy lovage purée and cucumbers in pine vinegar. Before the next course, it’s time for a foraging expedition.

“We’re going to pick weeds,” declares Haatuft, bounding down the stairs alongside Eirik Glambek Bøe, a soft-spoken musician (half of the indie folk duo Kings of Convenience), writer, and scholar who works at the intersection of psychology and architecture. The pair soon return with bowls of ground elder, an inva- sive yet edible weed plucked from a neighbor’s property.

“We have a word for this in Norwegian—it’s called slang, when you go to a place or someone’s garden and take something that you’re not supposed to, to eat,” explains Alexander Helle, the dap- per creative director of Norwegian Rain, a refined rainwear label he founded with T-Michael. The ground elder is used to garnish late-spring asparagus with slivers of cured egg yolk and a thick schmear of smoked-mackerel butter, all of which is devoured to a chorus of murmured approval.

“We can redefine what’s luxury,” says Haatuft, noting that butter is all that’s needed to transform mackerel, a traditional Norwegian staple, into an extravagance. The next course, with mushrooms, green garlic, and plump langoustines, requires no such intervention.

Left: musician Eirik Glambek Bøe helps Haatuft forage for ground elder; Right: fashion designer T-Michael cooks the scallops.

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During a pause between courses, everyone drifts to different parts of the house. Wie- der cleans the stove in preparation for the next dish: Mangalitsa pork with a crackly crisp skin. The heritage breed is raised in the mountains near Voss. T-Michael follows lawyer Kjersti Døssland outside for a smoke, and Haatuft bellows good-naturedly, “Who’s gonna clear the table, Todd?” Bøe takes a seat at the piano for an impromptu session that segues from melancholy melodies to selections from Grieg’s Peer Gynt before culminating with a rousing vocal performance by Hilde Sandvik, an editor, and journalist who founded the Norwegian media platform Broen.xyz.

The host, meanwhile, has wandered outside. After a close call with an avalanche, while skiing in Japan two years ago, Saunders says he’s focused inward, constantly reevaluating his life and his life’s work. The former hockey player now practices yoga and transcendental meditation.

“The work I do now is only the work that I want to do,” he says, explaining how he evaluates potential projects: “I think, If I had only one year to live, would I do it?” So although Saunders is preparing to open offices in New York and London, closer to international clients, he plans to remain in Bergen.

“Bergen is like a refuge,” explains T-Michael, another longtime expat. “Isolation turns into a positive thing, and you grow into something different than what’s out there. You create your own world, in a way.