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Hogtown’s brand of home design gets a freshness jolt

Though stripped of their youthful left-wing brio and humbled by deep shifts in taste since the 1970s, the design ideas of the Bauhaus and other sources of European modernism are enjoying a long, genteel Indian summer in Toronto and other North American cities.

Architects here have brought forth, in the last dozen years, an impressive crop of new urban villas and country houses with tall walls of glass, open-plan interiors, strong boxy geometry and other trademark features of the modernist style.

And the end of consumer demand for such luxury housing is nowhere in sight.

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I, for one, have welcomed this development. It is, among other useful things, a counter-weight to the tiresome practice of putting up new houses decked out in antique frocks and finery hauled down from the attic of pre-modern manners.

Not everyone, of course, shares my enthusiasm for Hogtown's brand of neo-modernist residential design.

There are and always will be people, for example, who want their houses to be pastiches of this or that obsolete fashion.

But there are other non-modernists – a far more interesting lot – who think Toronto's Bauhaus-inspired modernism has actually become routine, and even stale, and is much in need of refreshment.

Steven Fong is one local architect (and a professor at the University of Toronto's architecture school) who believes something along these lines, and has given his beliefs practical expression in a handsome pair of semi-detached dwellings on the city's east side.

"The point I want to make with these houses," he wrote in an e-mail, "is that what is currently touted as Toronto Modern is not modern.

"Bauhaus point-line-plane compositions, continuity of inside and outside, dissolving the volume in favour of planes, big walls of glass are all old-school European tropes. Ironically, [contemporary] Europeans have moved on to explore volumes that provide light interior spaces, yet at the same time offer a window-to-wall ratio that [is] better suited to our needs for energy conservation and responsive to changing sensibilities about what is a comfortable interior environment."

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Mr. Fong drives home his point with grace and vigour.

Drawing on the pleasantly jaunty rhythm of contrasting facades found on the old-fashioned residential streets of the Annex neighbourhood, he has surfaced one three-level semi with black brick, and the other with light cedar slats.

One streetside face is shorter and smaller than the other – though both, like good modernist buildings, sport rooflines that are dead flat – and each has a unique, attractively irregular configuration of windows.

As you might guess from his description of what he tried to do, these window openings have been left relatively small – a nod, of course, to energy efficiency, but also a bid to create interiors that are more intimate and enclosed than those in modernism's classic glass boxes.

If the exteriors of these structures argue for a greater appreciation of Toronto's older, home-grown housing typologies – one of Mr. Fong's academic specialties – the insides strive to be as sleek and fresh as possible.

The architect is especially proud of the steel-joist frame, which allows plumbing and electrical conduits to run through the skeleton of the house, thereby eliminating the need for bulkheads in the open-plan rooms.

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Heating is supplied by hot-water pipes embedded in the concrete floors and the hot water itself comes from a high-performance Viessmann boiler that is compact enough to fit into a broom closet.

But there is more to these interiors than gadgetry and up-to-date engineering.

They have a more intangible quality: flair. The appointments of the bathrooms and bedrooms – especially the master bedroom suites that fill the whole top floors of both houses – are meant to possess what Mr. Fong calls "the level of finish and amenity associated with hipster hotel environments."

In the case of these private houses, this sensuous design impulse translates into tubs that hover in the large bathrooms, and patterns of circulation between bed and bath that are uninterrupted by doors or partitions.

The architect has brought to these residences the lessons he has learned about social space from doing some of Queen Street West's coolest destinations, including Parts and Labour bar and restaurant and the soon-to-open Beverley Hotel. The success of Mr. Fong's east-end houses suggests Toronto's current practitioners of architectural modernism, good as they are, still have a thing or two to learn from his version of hipsterism and even from the venerable streetscapes of the Annex.

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John More


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