Knotty by Nature

Originally published in 

In snowy Sweden, where pine planks and the democratic design incubator Ikea reign supreme, a local architect pays homage to his patrimony, making a small, slatty home feel like a rather big deal. 

Bornstein Residence

 “I hadn’t really dug into wood before,” architect Per Bornstein explains as we begin a tour of his house. “Then you realize there’s so much wood in Sweden. It’s a cheap material. Everybody can use it. It ages beautifully and it’s instantly cozy. From then on it was just a case of going all the way.”

And go all the way he most certainly did. The house lies on the outskirts of Gothenburg on a previously disused pocket of land. “It had become the local dump,” remembers Bornstein. “And when it came to be excavated, the builders found bicycles; there were meters of old garden rubbish. So I think most of the neighbors felt it was nice that it was being used.” He chose the area for economic as well as personal reasons. “I grew up ten minutes from here, and we were looking for houses in this part of the city because they were still reasonably cheap. We saw this ad, and we just called.”

From the east-facing front windows the city sprawls out. Nearby is a bland-looking residential tower block; below that, a spaghetti junction of roads, rail, and tram lines skirt the Göta River, once home to a trio of enormous shipyards. To the south, however, lies a large, forested park where huge chunks of granite burst into the small, currently untamed garden. The site is an intriguing intersection of urban and rural, one that the house toys with adroitly. The material from which it is primarily constructed clearly references the Scandinavian landscape, but its shape belongs to the machine age.

Bornstein himself compares it to a hollowed-out tree stump; I’m not so sure. From the outside, it looks like a 1,400-square-foot timber-paneled box cutting into a slope. The modernist influence is none too difficult to detect, of course, and is confirmed by a quick scan of the vast number of books in Bornstein’s downstairs study. Though there are monographs galore, one name leaps out. “Every time I come to a building by Le Corbusier, it’s like,” he exhales heavily for dramatic effect, “it’s like a different league. You’ve come to a Champions League football match, and you realize that until then you’ve been watching kids play.”

This isn’t a large house, and in a move of Corbusian efficiency, Bornstein took pains to maximize the use of the available space. Much of the design is about subtraction—there is a noticeable lack of doors and blinds, for example. Rooms seem to blend elegantly into each other—the architect himself rather cutely uses the analogy of the rooms “borrowing” each other’s space—and mirrors have been positioned to increase the sense of scale.

 “The whole idea is to make the spaces feel as large as possible,” he says. Importantly too, there’s a distinct lack of clutter. A couple works of art lean against the walls, but otherwise, it’s the timber panels that really articulate the owner’s taste. “I don’t like having that much stuff,” he confirms. “It’s a very functional house. I guess everything is functional when you live in 1,400 square feet.”

Though his modern influences and yen for a small space go some way to explaining the form,  the choice of material was down to both context and practicality. “We didn’t intend to put that much cash in, so the house had to be cheap,” Bornstein says. “We were looking at industrial building—like steel beams—but they tend to age very poorly. We looked at concrete too, but we knew these builders—they’re more like friends—and we really wanted to work with them. They were keen to use wood, so that’s what led us to the material.”

As Bornstein talks, the eagle-eyed among you will notice the references to “we.” When the project started in 2005, he was married to an interior designer; however, by 2007, they had separated. Their five-year-old daughter, Velma, lives with Bornstein every other week. The former couple’s relationship is amicable now, and Bornstein is sincere when he shares credit for all the design decisions.
 Split between two levels, the majority of walls are clad in two-by-eight-foot boards of untreated glued-laminated pinewood. “There’s no painting, nothing,” he says. “It’s straight out of the package.” The upstairs ceiling is finished in plywood, so the only areas of the house not finished in timber are the external walls of the basement made from concrete blocks. It’s unfussy and just a little raw around the edges. “I like the idea that everything is what it is. Nothing is enclosed. If it’s a radiator, then it’s a radiator. If it’s a light fitting, then it’s a light fitting. In the end, it makes the house very easy to understand.”

Upstairs is Velma’s room, Bornstein’s slightly larger bedroom, and a bathroom. The light-filled open plan that dominates the top floor contains a wood-burning stove at one end and a dark brown oak kitchen from Ikea at the other, which in turn leads out onto a deck in the garden. In between are the dining and living rooms. Downstairs has a spare bedroom suite (for when Velma entertains), which Bornstein is temporarily using as an office for his architectural practice, Bornstein Arkitekter.

The general sense of reduction extends to the color palette too. Weary of what they seemed to see everywhere, the former couple decided that nothing should be stainless steel or white. “We had a hard time finding a toilet that was gray rather than white,” he admits. It also took Bornstein six months to find a suitably colored bathtub. “I’d rather have an empty room than stuff I don’t like.”

 As the light fades, the character of the house and the city that stretches out beneath it changes. Streetlights twinkle and the timber box begins to glow. “I think in the end we were the right buyers,” Bornstein concludes. “If someone had bought it and built a standard catalog house, it probably wouldn’t have worked out very well because it was a difficult spot. But since we drew the house from the conditions on the site, it came out very well.” It’s hard to disagree. Though the house undoubtedly owes a debt to the Continental innovations of Le Corbusier, it also has a typically Scandinavian sense of warmth that allows it to negotiate the boundary between the postindustrial and rural landscapes with all the ease, and pragmatism, of a seasoned diplomat.

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