Designed with confidence and insight, and not merely to satisfy the fluffing aesthetic of real-estate agents, the houses we occupy reveal the raw goods about our aspirations and, ultimately, our inner mood. They distill what matters in design, which explains why great architects, from Andrea Palladio to Frank Gehry, have used them to poetically capture light, to test materials and to attempt exquisite new forms. Here are four houses (three of them just completed) by Canadian architects that ignite an instant connection to place and the outdoor world.
House 23.2, White Rock, B.C.
Omer Arbel produces outlier architecture, floating in its own cyberspace, liberated and free (and numbered chronologically). When the glass doors of 23.2 House are slid wide open, there's a powerful tension between being sheltered under rough, weathered beams and finding yourself nakedly exposed to a hayfield in White Rock, B.C.
Massive, historic Douglas-fir beams – some of them measuring more than 15 metres (50 feet) long – were recovered from demolished Vancouver warehouses owned by the client, provoking the initial approach to the house design. "They have a phenomenological impact," says Arbel, 36, who developed his flair for integrated design and the powerful making of forms while working for the late Barcelona architect Enric Miralles as well as Patkau Architects in Vancouver. "We decided to treat them as a poetic engine for the project."
The 23.2 exploits a Marrakesh-like bazaar of textures with robust wooden shelving, customized electrical-control system and round-face outlets, and 28 hand-blown floating lights designed and built by Arbel and his team in his factory studio. (The lights are also distributed through Bocci, a manufacturer of furniture and objects for which Arbel is the creative director.) Innovation wildly, wonderfully abounds. There are two white "hockey stick" steel columns intentionally designed to be as thin as twigs, in contrast to the heavy, heroic roof they support. At 5,000 square feet and with a hefty total cost of approximately $850 a square foot, the 23.2 House is an exceptional work configured to aesthetically harvest its hayfield site.
North Toronto House
D'Arcy Jones thinks highly of the low-lying Toronto bungalow and the squat "Vancouver special," enough to want to reinvent them rather than tear them down. For a young family living on a quiet, tree-lined street in north Toronto, Jones maintained the one-storey bungalow scale and lines of its original hip roof, while inserting sculpturally minimal concrete walls and installing enormous bronze anodized aluminum windows throughout.
Inside, there's a dynamic, multifaceted ceiling crafted from big plywood sheets of white oak. Constructed for less than $500 a square foot, the house demonstrates an exquisite attention to detail throughout its 2,500 square feet, with one-inch reveals around the oak stairs as well as around custom-designed cabinetry between ceiling and walls.
His clients had interviewed a variety of award-winning Toronto architects, but were concerned the work would mirror a lot of the new modernism that already exists in the city – and be expensive to boot. (Despite similar building technologies, Toronto construction tends to cost about twice that of Vancouver.) Jones is a Vancouver designer paid by the hour, who completed his masters of architecture at the University of Manitoba.
The long-distance relationship has never been an issue, the clients tell me during my visit to their house. For one thing, there are five large binders of design details. For another, they communicate frequently with Jones, often sending 20 e-mails back and forth each day. "He's a genius," they tell me, more than once.
MODERNest House 1, Toronto
The MODERNest sign in the front window of 154 Rhodes Avenue declares in no uncertain terms: "Everything you want in a house." That's a loaded promise, for sure; but for its abundance of natural light, white, airy spaces and simple, enduring palette, the design ambition is nicely delivered. This house's flat roof and black-stained pine cladding resemble that of many of Toronto's new-modernism infill houses. But MODERNest caught my attention because it not only demystifies high design; it's the product of an architect who is also now a small-scale developer.
Kyra Clarkson learned her craft in New York at the acclaimed firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects before returning, after nine years, to Toronto with her husband, Chris Glaisek, of Waterfront Toronto. Together, they started MODERNest to deliver to young homeowners a comfortable version of contemporary design in livable neighbourhoods connected to public transit, while dispensing with the energy and time it usually requires of commissioning clients.
To start their business, they purchased a run-down two storey in Leslieville and, unable to salvage it, tore it down to create a functional, minimal house that sits comfortably within an eclectic streetscape. There are kind gestures throughout, such as the generous wood canopy over the back porch, the Douglas-fir windows, and the enormous bubble skylight that creates a bright zone out of the second-floor landing. "We could have gone up to three floors as of right, but we wanted to sit properly on the street," says Clarkson. "You feel a responsibility." The Clarkson-designed home goes on the market this week for $699,000.
Fuller Terrace, Halifax
Intelligent, ethical architecture often anticipates new ways of inhabiting the city. In the north end of Halifax, in what's considered to be a fairly dense, edgy part of the city, Susan Fitzgerald purchased an inexpensive lot that allowed her to design and build the two-part Fuller Terrace: a live-work house and, at the back of the lot, a garage that can easily be converted into a laneway dwelling.
It's one of a series of private residences elegantly tucked into their sites and built as speculative architecture with Fitzgerald's partner and husband, Brainard. "Halifax has incredibly strict zoning bylaws. We wanted to anticipate the change that we believe is coming." Cedar shingles clad both the buildings, whose roofs are nearly flat; and both structures have concrete in-floor heating. Natural light floods the interiors. It's an accessible version of modernism that cost $400,000 to construct.
Fitzgerald is the recipient of the 2011 Professional Prix de Rome. The $50,000 award allows its winners, over the course of two years, to travel in order to further "develop their creative practice and strengthen their presence on the international scene." Her research into productive urban landscapes has taken her, so far, to Cuba and Peru. Her next speculative development will also be sited in the north end of Halifax. But, this time, inspired by her Prix de Rome research, the roofscape will blossom with gardens of plants and flowers.
For more on the Omer Arbel 23.2 House and on design from around the world, follow Lisa Rochon's blog, chasinghome.org .
Editor's note: The print version and an earlier online version of this article contained incorrect information. This version has been corrected.