Why We Work - Architect, Todd Saunders

Inside the Architect’s Studio

Duet meets with Todd Saunders at the top of his architecture studio in Bergen, Norway. Spread across every surface in the room are dozens of building models in various shapes and sizes. These blue foam shapes evolve across generations, as the offspring take on increasingly refined forms. Here, the physical models serve as a comprehensive timeline of a project from idea to finalization. The culmination of the models is a pristine, white landscape befit with miniature people and trees.

Every contour of the landscape is precisely crafted to scale and atop this small world stands a structure —  a structure made of the same pristine, white material and sculpted to perfection. The silhouette of the final building is in harmony with the miniature world it rests on, as if it was destined to be there.

While downstairs the Saunders Architecture team has drafted 2D and 3D models to perfect dimensions, the physical models in the loft inform his thinking most.

Light illuminates the models from both sides and from a skylight above. Saunders points at the shadows cast on the miniature world to describe how the change in light affects the perception of the structure, it’s form, and the way it interacts with it’s surroundings.

“The use of physical models, I think that is a dying art. 

Some of the best Architects in the world, Herzog & De Meuron from Switzerland, they did an exhibition at the Tate a few years ago and it didn’t show any drawings whatsoever. They just showed physical models and it showed the way their design process of using physical miniature models of a building was a great design tool.

I think I’ll always do that, even though my office has some of the best 3D guys in the world. That’s the way I think.”

A Material Spirit

One of Saunders’ purest desires is for every structure he creates to feel as if it had always been there —  and for it to belong with the landscape in the future. He selects the building’s form, materials, and even it’s construction to weather with the elements of the landscape. To him the structures are not static, they live and grow with their surroundings. Saunders speaks softly to point out that most Architects are protective. That they are only truly satisfied with their work the moment after it has been built.

“I think it bothers a lot of architects that after the picture is taken the building is never as beautiful as it was in that one moment.” 

Todd observes his profession like an outsider.

“They take their photo and leave”

Those Architects feel that the people or elements that alter their work over time, only deface it’s beauty. Todd Saunders is different in that way. He welcomes the pocket knife of lovers carving out their initials in the wood or the hands of visitors from all over the world, unevenly polishing the metal hand rails as they walk along his creation in Aurland.

He’s happier that the buildings take on a life of their own 

“They have this patina to it, that they look better as they get older. There’s a history to it.”

Todd Saunders has designed his work with a hundred storms in mind and he’s able to imagine beauty in the aging of his buildings at the end. 

If you ask him why he thinks this way, he’ll tell you about his profound respect for the landscape. He keenly explains that the landscape will go on to survive much longer than any building he constructs, however he subtly drifts into stories of the people who surround his work. How his building is not only a reflection of the landscape in which it resides, but also a portrait of the people —  their past and present.

“If you look at a picture of an old Fisherman from Newfoundland his skin is all worn by the wind and the waves and the weather and he looks very beautiful actually. I want to see my buildings age, get old, wear down and have this beauty; of this old weathered fisherman.”

And listening to these stories makes it clear that while his buildings appear strikingly modern, they are informed by the history of the place. 

In Fogo, the natural woods are cut and placed to form the structure with the hands of the same locals who had carved the houses nearby into the soil. Saunders has a more personal connection to the Fogo Island landscape than any other Architect can claim, because he grew up nearby in a small town in Newfoundland.

“I first started thinking about Architecture when I was about 4 years old, but I grew up in a town where there were no Architects. So I didn’t really get exposed to it. I was always building cabins with my friends in the woods. So for years I thought I wanted to be a Carpenter; but as I get more exposed to the world, I found out about Architecture. 

That was more of what I wanted to be. I knew the love of drawing, the love of building.”

This made him uniquely suited to take on Zita Cobb’s mission to revitalize the Fogo Island economy by making the island a travel destination and Arts Mecca.

“I think the world is becoming more and more similar, everywhere you go is becoming the same. I’m really against that, what’s the point in traveling to Newfoundland when you’re gonna see something you can see in Nebraska.”

“So my work is very specific to place and it’s very unique and a one of a kind thing you don’t see everywhere else. And that’s why a lot of my projects become destinations in themselves.

Uniqueness is what I’m after. Each place has it’s own character and each place deserves more attention. And that’s what I think a lot of buildings don’t do anymore, they could be anywhere.”

Pursuing Simplicity

Beyond the drive for uniqueness, Saunders strives to refine his buildings till they reach their essence. A design process often focused on subtractive work instead of additive. With the end goal to refine form and function to achieve simplicity, he wages the iterations against each other. Models and sketches own a lineage of form that either gets carried on to the next refinement or ceases to be. An insightful look into his perspective, Saunders’ personification of the models in a battle of Natural Selection shows his care and deliberation over each idea.

“It looks almost like a kid can draw our work. I want to boil things down to the essential elements. So they’re not complicated, so people can understand them. You have a building that you don’t need an instruction manual to use. It’s all intuitive. 

This is where we work so much with the projects. It’s almost like Darwinism there’s an evolution of the projects. We start off with a very rough, unrefined idea move to the next model, more refined.

If you look at the history of the design process of some of these buildings and all the sketches and all the models made you’ll see how much questioning was involved and how much effort was involved to make it. But in the end it should look obvious that this is the best solution for the place.”

A Familiar Process

Architecture and the process of designing, sculpting, iterating and learning from the environment is in many ways quite similar to designing and building software. However, what’s most captivating to me is how it differs. Architecture, and the work of Todd Saunders especially, strives to design one final form to engage with the environment around it. 

This process can take years to complete but when finished must stand the test of time for decades to come. 

As a software designer, I find both this patience and permanence rather awe-inspiring. It’s a marvelous challenge and ambition —  and also an impossible luxury in the world of software.

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