As valiantly as prose writers try to explain architecture, sometimes poetry can prove more effective. Author and educator Thomas Fisher must have thought so when he and his publisher chose the title of his new book on David Salmela, FAIA—The Invisible Element of Place—which comes from a Wallace Stevens poem sent to Salmela by an English-professor neighbor. The entire poem is reprinted in the book, one of many literary and cultural references Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, weaves into his erudite and engaging narrative.

This is the rare monograph in which words carry just as much impact as photographs. (Not to take anything away from the consistently lovely and informative photos of Salmela’s work by Peter Bastianelli-Kerze.) Unusually in-depth case studies examine the Duluth, Minn.-based architect’s relationships with clients, contractors, and other collaborators. They highlight the role of traditional Scandinavian and modernist architecture in shaping Salmela’s aesthetic. “Salmela’s architecture … captures the sense of connection that modernism has long had with the distant past,” Fisher writes. And he pinpoints the way his subject’s houses express today’s evolving lifestyles and family structures. For example, in the pages devoted to the Streeter Residence in Deephaven, Minn., Fisher explores the project’s identity as a home for a single dad and his son: “Salmela has given us one of the first houses of the twenty-first century that shows how architecture can temper the tensions that naturally occur between father and son, providing a place in which the two generations can come together and also be apart.”

The book creates a rich experience for the reader, evoking the close connections between residential architecture and other, seemingly unrelated disciplines. (The write-up on a remodel Salmela did for his own dentist’s house draws a persuasive parallel between design and dentistry.) Architect readers will enjoy it for the poetry of Salmela’s buildings as well as the author’s intellectually omnivorous approach to covering them.

The Invisible Element of Place: The Architecture of David Salmela, by Thomas Fisher. Photographs by Peter Bastianelli-Kerze. University of Minnesota Press, $39.95.

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