2017 AIA Architect of Distinction: Christine Albertsson

Christine Albertsson stands smiling at the center island of a kitchen she updated in Minneapolis. Her dog, Bruno, is laying on the floor next to her.

Christine Albertsson updated this Minneapolis kitchen with a modern take on classic materials. Bruno Albertsson, gregarious office dog, approves. Photo by Chad Holder

Each year, Midwest Home magazine teams up with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Minnesota to honor two residential architects: an Architect of Distinction, an AIA member and licensed architect who has been practicing for at least 15 years; and an Emerging Talent, an AIA member and licensed architect who has been practicing for 10 years or fewer.

Christine Albertsson, AIA, is this year’s Architect of Distinction. In recognition of her award-winning work as founder of Albertsson Hansen Architecture in Minneapolis, Midwest Home and AIA Minnesota will contribute funds for a scholarship in her name to the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture.

Christine Albertsson was one of the first recipients of the Emerging Talent Award in 2005. Between then and this year’s recognition as Architect of Distinction, she has cultivated a robust team approach to residential design that’s placed her in the elevated role of architect as visionary and leader. “The more projects I do, the more time I spend advocating for and describing the vision for a project, as a way of shepherding forth a wonderful place for my clients to live and experience their site,” says Albertsson, who founded her Minneapolis firm, Albertsson Hansen Architecture, in 2000.

A cottage living room shows hard wood floors, wooden walls, and an overlooking loft.

This Madeline Island cottage used insulating panels on the exterior, allowing framing to be exposed on the interior to create a comfy lived-in look. Photo by Pete Sieger

 She admits to feeling guilty, even sad at times, about delegating details to her staff. “Detail is what makes the work,” she says. Still, by empowering her team to take on such important aspects, Albertsson has been freed up to develop and inhabit her leadership role. “Helping clients find the vision for a project; resolving challenges, incompatibilities and conflicts; guiding a project through reasonable practice, reasonable materials, reasonable methods; and working through and ensuring everyone is comfortable with decisions is how I make something magical happen,” she explains.

Albertsson approaches each project with a singular “level of engagement,” she says, noting that she collaborates with senior associate Mark E. Tambornino on much of her work. Whether a Madeline Island cabin with an open-board interior, or a kitchen remodeled for a British family desiring a little piece of London, or a downtown Minneapolis loft in a historic warehouse, the residences Albertsson designs “have a common sensibility in terms of our level of engagement with each project’s individual circumstances.”

That kitchen, for instance. “The house had pre-existing window openings we couldn’t move, so it was unclear how we would get a great kitchen in the space,” she recalls. “Instead of assuming something had to happen around the windows, we split them with a pocket door, with the pantry on one side and the kitchen on the other. That kind of solution grows out of deep engagement with the space and strange circumstances. It’s about getting to the root of the problem.”

 A sleek and modern kitchen designed by Christine Albetsson features white cabinetry, black countertops, a white subway tile backsplash and stainless steel appliances.

The design for this North Loop loft balances the industrial materials of the space with with the softer textures of reclaimed wood, salvaged from the owner's parents' farm. Photo by Pete Sieger

Another conundrum? Designing a new cabin that—once the insulation, wiring, weather stripping, and double-pane windows are installed—still feels like a cabin or “a light shelter,” she says. The solution: sheathing the exterior with insulating panels in order to leave the wall framing open on the interior. A residence in the Upper Peninsula for a 6-foot-8-inch client? The solution was a larger-scale home with higher ceilings, and taller door openings and counters. The home steps down into its sloped site to keep sightlines open to the lake, and maintain spatially dynamic and free-flowing interiors.

“It’s all in the math,” Albertsson says of her success in addressing strange circumstances. “It’s about dimension and proportion, being in command of the sizes of things, then translating that into the work.” In combining two units in the Itasca Building into one loft, for example, she raised the floor to create a sound barrier between the client and the units below, for flexibility in relocating plumbing, and to maximize views of the Mississippi River. She inserted a gray-glass backsplash and Ikea kitchen into the natural brick, timber, and steel structure, as well as a stairway up to a new sunroom and roof deck.

“I’m not interested in space for space’s sake; I’m interested in finding the right amount of space that carefully addresses the problem, a right-sizing that may result in the scale becoming smaller,” Albertsson says, talking of the qualities that distinguish her work. She values the power of simple elemental form, which can humanize a large structure. And she considers beautiful design more than eye candy: “If an architect has thought carefully and deeply about how to solve the issues, and we see evidence of care in the craftsmanship and proper proportioning of the space, that spirit transmits a level of beauty we experience with all of our senses.”

Log and lumber beams, hardwood floors and a wooden ceiling highlight this living room.

Log and lumber details take on the luminous light of the airy interior. Photo by Karen Melvin

Her many award-winning projects are testament to her words: Her work is affecting precisely because it captures thoughtful solutions and impeccable craftsmanship.

Her leadership outside of the field is considerable, as well. Albertsson created a mentoring program designed to introduce grade-school children to architecture; taught at the University of Minnesota for eight years; served on the board of directors of the American Swedish Institute through its addition and remodel (she is now working on a small project for the organization); and is the volunteer leader of the building and grounds committee at Lake Country School in Minneapolis.

“Bringing leadership and design thinking to the community at large is extremely powerful,” she says. “With a background in architecture, you develop an incredible facility to think in multiple ways to solve problems. I’m learning I have so much to contribute, as well as in the design of houses.”

Q&A with Christine Albertsson

Where do you typically find inspiration when beginning a house design?

From the site and surroundings themselves, as well as the goals of the client.  

What architect do you consider a role model? Why?

Alvaro Aalto, because of his ability to meld modern ideas with traditional building methods and materials.  

To you, what is the most important issue in the practice of residential architecture?

Residential architects have the potential to set a new standard by exemplifying efficient, uplifting, sustainably built homes, demonstrating to the public that less is more. Smaller space that is well built and highly functional will far outlast McMansions, and helps protect our resources for future generations. 

What public building taught you important design lessons?

Woodland Chapel by Gunnar Asplund. The building and its site together in Stockholm, Sweden, are a powerful demonstration of how buildings can carry meaning through their relationship to the land, the materials, the form and scale, and the sequence of movement on the site, all in service of a specific ritual. 

Describe the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as an architect.

Creating a building is a joyous and complex collaboration. I have learned that leading this process with vision and compassion, flexibility and imagination, is the best way to create positive outcomes for my clients. 

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