The elderly timber barns that dot the rolling hills of southern Ontario's Grey County have long brought joy to the hearts of sentimental landscape painters and watercolourists. The stalwart plainness and picturesque dilapidation of these buildings help them fit into the myth, promoted by such artists, that rural life is the blissful Arcadian idyll they portray in their popular pictures. (It isn't.)
This is not the fault of the barns themselves, of course. They are tough and serviceable structures, made to withstand wind and weather and hard use. And to be sure, the simple, workmanlike designs of these farm buildings occasionally strike the flint of tougher, more sophisticated imagination, and a spark flies off, kindling a creative flame.
That's what happened when Robert Kastelic and Kelly Buffey, principals in the Toronto architectural firm of Atelier Kastelic Buffey, started thinking about how best to craft a new getaway house for a family of five with property in the Grey County resort town of The Blue Mountains. Looking to the county's vernacular building traditions for artistic ideas, the architects came up with a scheme that mirrors these old local ways of doing things.
Maison Glissade, as the spartan, quietly handsome 2,400-square-foot result has been dubbed, has the long, pitched, gable-ended top of a barn, and is clad and roofed in red cedar planking that will weather down to silvery grey with the passage of years. Nestled among trees on its suburban-sized corner lot, the plain-lined dwelling doesn't look much like what's around it – romantic Alpine chalets, modernist bungalows à la Etobicoke, that kind of thing. But it looks a lot better, and considerably more well-grounded in the earth.
Which is not to say that this two-storey house is a simple transcription of a barn into a small Ontario town. Mr. Kastelic and Ms. Buffey have introduced several updatings of the structure's historic precedent, though without jostling its workaday profile very much. In their most dramatic move, for example – but this really isn't all that dramatic, as it happens – the architects have slid the upper level smartly off the bottom storey along the long axis, creating a deep overhang on the end facing the ski slopes and, on the other end, a broad deck accessible from the second storey.
In other respects, the changes to the basic barn format have been small, or completely hidden. The building's steel frame, for instance, does not affect the exterior appearance, but it allows the interior to be completely free of rafters, beams and columns. This means that the open-plan upper floor, where the very active family cooks, eats and relaxes together, is one clear-span space under the high ridge of the roof, devoid of structural clutter.
There are no skylights, and there is no washroom on this level. The floor is fashioned from European white oak. Illumination is provided by pot lamps sunk into the ceiling, by windows on the two long walls and by glass doors and large openings on the room's two ends. The room's centre of visual gravity is a great dining table, behind which hangs a digitally composed photographic panorama by Vancouver artist Scott McFarland. (This artist's interesting images usually depict the places where nature and culture, country and city, meet and get mixed up – which makes having his picture here, in a barn-like structure that displays a rustic face supported by industrial steel bones, seem especially appropriate.)
Like a Palladian villa, Maison Glissade keeps its most sociable areas high, in order to command good views of the grounds and the scenery round about, and its more intimate quarters down below. The darker, lower of the two above-ground storeys contains five bedrooms and a big mud room for the family's sporting equipment and below that is a finished basement.
I don't want to make too much of this building. It's an entirely thoughtful though quite modest response to the clients' desire for a year-round second home near the slopes they love to ski down and the trails they like to hike and bike and horse-back ride on. And if a glance around the neighbourhood is anything to go on, this family could have done much worse, and happily chose not to.
I understand why some town folk want their country houses to look just like their city houses, or like some architectural cliché such as the standard ski chalet – though it suggests that they and their designers really have no feeling or respect at all for the country and its best old building legacy. In commissioning Maison Glissade from two talented young architects with open minds and eyes, the couple that owns the house has demonstrated exactly the right kind of regard for the countryside they enjoy so much. I hope other customers of new architecture in rural Ontario follow their good example.