In 1970, Kari K. Holm had first pick among her siblings of the family land on Hanko, an island 60 miles south of her Oslo, Norway, home. After much consideration, she and her husband, German-born architect Jürgen Kiehl, selected an area at the farthest, most remote, exposed tip, where the tree line abruptly ends and nothing obstructs the open view.
Kari inherited this land in 1970, the year we married. At the time, I was a student; to be given a piece of this landscape, and the opportunity to design a house for it, was nothing short of a dream.
We had visited Sea Ranch on California’s Sonoma-Mendocino coast in 1967, and it made a huge impression on me. The other great influences were Louis Kahn and his idea that every element of a building has its own unique function, but all cobbled into a whole––the concept of house as village. I brought these inspirations to my drawing table.
Originally, the house had three units: two identical sloping volumes facing in opposite directions around a central rectangular prism. Once it was built, locals described it as “two outhouses and a box.” The side units were the shape of the traditional outhouses in a Norwegian barn. As soon as I heard that description, I knew I’d succeeded. I think Kari’s father, a contractor, was offended I didn’t ask his advice. When he walked into the kitchen, the first thing he said was, “That post isn’t necessary.” And he was right, but I love wood and this was my first wooden house. I used twice as much wood as I needed to. It’s all pine. I like it. Pine is cheap and not too busy.
Norwegian summers are short, and it’s customary to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Because of the exposure here we wanted to make sure that no matter how the wind blew, there would be shelter. We also wanted sunlight through the course of the day. So for every indoor space there is a corresponding outdoor space–—a deck, a sheltered area, a balcony.
The landscape here is fascinating. Where we built the house marks the transition between two topographies: one rocky and one forested. The rocks are 800 million years old and were molded by ice a mile thick. There are distinct shapes to the rocks, and cows and sheep that once grazed here have worn down the paths between them. Those are the paths we take to and from our boat dock, and we know them by heart, even in the dark. It was important not to disturb the natural sculpture of this setting, and also not to build where there were trees. The kitchen, which is at the center of the house, is higher than the rest, because the rock below it is higher. It’s also where the house comes together, the place where everyone participates.
In 1976, instead of buying a new car, we built the second part of our “village”: three identical units grouped in a triangle. They contain a sauna, an office, and a sleeping room. In the center is a shower Kari’s uncle built: a bucket with a pulley system. He wasn’t the only one who helped us either: My mentor from Germany, Horst Beier, with whom I apprenticed as a student, helped me build the front deck and the built-in benches in the living room.
Norwegians have always returned to the land, and lived primitively part of the year at their cottages. But that tradition is in danger. Today, people want comforts. They want the Internet and heated floor tiles.
The first 30 years here we had no electricity. We cooked by gas. We had a gas fridge. Our bedroom was up a steep staircase in a loft. But in 2000, we decided to make this house livable to us in our galloping old age. Kari’s back has gotten worse, and she was eventually going to have trouble climbing stairs. This is when it came time to design the new addition.
That process was very hard. I made numerous drawings, including one inspired by a lighthouse, because we can see five from here. I finally decided on a boatlike shape that wouldn’t compete with the original structure. Now we have a master bedroom on the first floor and an indoor bathroom of sorts, but still no plumbing. Between the two is a sunroom with a skylight and a daybed for cloud-gazing. Extending from this sunroom is a deck behind glass doors, creating more sheltered outdoor space. Giacometti lives there–—a gift for my 60th birthday from a sculptor friend. I see the addition as defining the next stage of life for us, but it’s hard to think in terms of time here. Here we tell time by the ferries to Denmark and the call of a cuckoo bird.