The eyeball in the wall is watching.
Luckily, since it's positioned on a concrete wall near the back of the house, it's watching proud new homeowners Rasheed and Christine rather than the neighbours. Well, it isn't watching them yet, since the couple (who have asked to withhold surnames) is currently living and working in London, England. But when they move in this summer, it'll begin its friendly surveillance.
In reality a large, hammered-brass light fixture inserted into a round opening, the "eyeball" by Unitfive Design, is a fun little detail that gives this Drew Mandel-designed home in the Mount Pleasant and St. Clair area an extra layer of "interest and personality."
Houses at this level of customization, says the award-winning architect, are an "assembly of 10,000 decisions," so when a person is offered "little moments that you can control, when you can doodle as you're on the phone talking about HVAC," he laughs, things become enjoyable again.
And speaking of eyeballs, this project had a lot of them trained on it, since this would be the first teardown in a very established and architecturally uniform (all 1920s) midtown block. So, long before even one old brick was disturbed, Mr. Mandel slipped notices in surrounding mailboxes with a list of times he'd be available to speak about the new plan.
"And they didn't quite come with pitchforks," he chuckles, "but there was a large group of people that wanted to meet and discuss the proposal." Mr. Mandel adds that this was perfectly understandable, since many residents had lived on the street for decades.
"I never mind that; if you're interested in your street that's not a bad thing."
While neither Mr. Mandel, his team (Jowenne Poon, Rachel Tameirao), or the clients will ever know how many neighbours came away pleased, the result is an extremely sensitive solution as to how to insert a visually light Modernist home into a streetscape of dark brick, gables, shutters and porches. The homes on either side of Rasheed and Christine's, for instance, showcase brick at ground level, while stucco sheathes their second and third storeys. At ground level, Mr. Mandel's composition displays a dark wooden front door, a big picture window (which reads as dark during the day) and, on the façade's north corner, a small recessed "bite" painted dark grey. The second storey is clad in creamy limestone, and, better yet, the third is pretty much all gable, the result of the new zoning bylaw that came into effect in May, 2013 (discussed in this space Feb. 21). It all adds up to a seamless shoehorning without being slavish.
Inside, the visual lightness continues. From the foyer, one can look right to the massive dining table, straight ahead to the central kitchen (with glorious millwork by David O. Sullivan), or all the way back to the family room. Interestingly, another, much longer bite has been taken out of the floor area at the home's southwest corner. This allows for a light well that not only directs photons deep into the basement, the concrete wall that creates it (the one with the eyeball fixture) doubles as a "shield" to allow for a much higher percentage of glazing on the home's south wall (i.e. the proximity to the neighbouring home means that, without it, the amount of glass would have to be much lower).
Past the kitchen's floating vent hood – which punches above its weight by creating a high-priced look simply by wrapping a conventional hood in back-painted glass – and one can plop onto the family room sofa to enjoy a vista of trees. Opposite the fireplace, sliding glass doors open to the light well.
In the high-ceilinged basement, not only does another pair of sliding doors open to the light well, one can walk through them into a unique, totally private outdoor "room," with pebbles underfoot and a view of sky above. Since the home's gym is beside this feature, it's a great place to cool down after a workout.
While early plans didn't call for a basement, Rasheed, who works with hedge funds, is quite pleased: "There's a lot hidden down there," he writes in an e-mail. "Gym. Recording studio. Wine cellar. Media room. Full bathroom and full laundry. In some ways, it's my favourite part of the house. But it wasn't inexpensive."
On the second floor, a long bite has been taken out of the floor to connect it to the ground level and the light well. Here, a few rooms have been left as "flexible space" so the family can grow.
On the top floor, the angled ceiling (resulting from the required gable) creates fun triangle shapes, which add to the many rectangles and circles found elsewhere: "We used pure forms as the language of this house," says Mr. Mandel.
Interestingly, the home's staircases are enclosed rather than put on display as sculptures behind thick glass. "They're very hard to achieve, and they're almost overdone," offers Mr. Mandel. "I don't mind dipping into a stairwell, disappearing, and then coming into a space." Equally unusual is that both front and rear entrances have been given the same respect; that's because when Rasheed gets back to Toronto, he'll be cycling home from work and then heading straight downstairs to the gym.
Until then, the eyeball in the wall will keep up its silent vigil.