A striking new residence in Duluth brings out the art in architecture

By Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

“Most art is fragile and . . . should be placed and never moved away,” said sculptor Donald Judd, a thought that came to mind when I first saw the house that Salmela Architect designed for Linda Deloia in Duluth, Minnesota. Standing on the downhill side of the street, next to a wooded creek, the house looks “fragile,” to use Judd’s term, with thin, flat roofs that project four feet from the walls and that seem to hover above a continuous, white-colored band that visually separates the dark-gray roofs from the matching base of the house.

But the apparent lightness of the roofs contrasts with the visual solidity of the house. Except for a glass entry hall that allows you to look through the house to the backyard, the building has no windows facing the street, and two windowless, black-painted garage doors. That blankness draws the eye even more to the four tall, Judd-like boxes on the roof, whose clerestory windows not only bring light into the center of the house but also shine, like lanterns, with the warmth of the artificial light from within.

This is a house, as Judd might say, firmly placed and never to be moved away. Because of the site’s downward slope, the house appears, from the street, to sit low to the ground, with two concrete driveways, a concrete walk, and a line of tall grasses and a line of trees ushering visitors toward the slightly sunken entry court. There, the seemingly solid house opens up, with large areas of glass looking into interior walls painted bright red and yellow. Those big blocks of color, viewed through black-framed windows, recall Piet Mondrian’s abstract paintings and give new meaning to his desire “to abolish time, especially in the contemplation of architecture.”

Entering the glass vestibule, you can go right into the three-bedroom sleeping wing, or straight to the rear deck with its white-painted fireplace, or left to the living spaces. The entrance hall spans the width of the house, with two lanterns providing ample daylight along its length, and large square windows at either end. One of the windows looks out to the trees and the other to the neighbor’s front door, which led Salmela to shield the latter with a translucent square in its middle, a remarkably effective way of letting in light and some view while also providing the necessary privacy. The move brings to mind the “center light” works of the artist Doug Wheeler, who could have said about that window what he says about art: It’s about “not looking at things but the tension between things.”

Another hall connects the garage and utility room to the main living/dining/kitchen space at the back of the house, overlooking a large backyard. Visually, says Salmela, “the yard borrows the neighbor’s backyard to look much bigger than it is.” A gable-roofed, black-painted timber pavilion, built by Linda Deloia’s late husband, occupies the backyard, on axis with the back deck. Its house-like form not only contrasts with the modern aesthetic of the main house but also has an ambiguous scale, appearing larger than it is and contributing to the yard looking the same.

Floor-to-ceiling windows give the living/dining/kitchen space a view of the backyard as well as the deck, while projecting window bays overlook the adjacent woodland creek. The deep yellow of the kitchen wall, the light brown of the wood floors, the warm gray of the ceiling, and the earthen tones of the furniture (including a Salmela-designed table) all complement the foliage that seems to embrace the main space. It feels at once part of the nature around it and apart from it.

Down the middle of that high-ceilinged space hang two light boxes, bringing daylight from the rooftop lanterns into the center of the room. Those square boxes, with square cutouts echoing the square clerestory windows above, have an uncanny quality: Although all-white, the squares within squares pick up the various colors of the day’s light and shadows, reminiscent of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square paintings that seem to play tricks with the eye. Albers once said that “color is almost never seen as it really is . . . this fact makes color the most relative medium in art,” an idea that very much applies to the multiple colors of those colorless cubes.

The bedroom wing of the house echoes the main wing, with a master bedroom overlooking the backyard and two smaller guest bedrooms toward the street with bathrooms and a dressing area along the side. As we walked through the house, neither client nor architect said much about it, letting it speak for itself. Which it does, beautifully. As the artist Eva Hesse said: “Don’t ask what the work is. Rather, see what the work does.” What this work does is leave you speechless.

Location: Duluth, Minnesota
Client: Linda Deloia
Architect: Salmela Architect
Principal-in-charge: David Salmela, FAIA
Project lead designer: David Salmela, FAIA
Project manager: Souliyahn Keobounpheng
Landscape architect: Travis Van Liere Studio
General contractor: Rod & Sons Carpentry
Size: 2,800 square feet
Completion: May 2017
Photographer: Corey Gaffer
“In California, where I live, the classic midcentury-modern houses are all about indoor/outdoor living. In comparison, this house is a wonderful exploration of how you can bring sunlight into a home in this climate in different ways—in artfully unexpected ways. Hands down, this project really stood out for us.”
—Hao Ko, AIA