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Structural elements making mark on front-yard landscaping

Not long after Cheryl Swan and her husband, Alan Jette, bought a home on a tight lot on Mathersfield Drive, near the Summerhill LCBO, they embarked on a front-and-back landscaping project, partly to fix a broken backyard patio. There was a small piece of land at the front, next to the pad parking space. Ms. Swan initially reckoned it could be a small terrace with a couple of chairs. But, she soon realized, “It’s not a place we would have sat.”

When she posed the problem to designer Joel Loblaw, he proposed something that’s not on the menu of most higher-end residential landscape amenities: an illuminated smoked-glass cube.

Made from tempered and sandblasted 3/8-inch glass, the object sits on a plinth of pressure-treated dark wood, with an accessible interior LED light. To soften its icily luminous bulk, Mr. Loblaw surrounded the cube with hydrangeas. “It was a little bit of a risk because I really haven’t seen one any place else,” Ms. Swan says.

Light Cube on the front lawn of the home of Cheryl Swan and Alan Jette in Toronto's Summerhill neighbourhood, by designer Joel Loblaw. (Virginia Macdonald)

While hardly commonplace, such structural landscaping elements are increasingly seen as important ingredients for front-yard projects, along with other more traditional architectural forms, such as hip walls or stylized benches. Some designers say that the appetite for these items reflects the growing interest among homeowners in modernist design, innovative landscaping and trendy materials, such as concrete or corten steel.

The markers vary greatly in size, material and function: Some serve as house-number markers, while others are more ornamental or serve to connect internal and external design elements, says Robert Wright, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. “There’s an integration of form that’s happening.”

Such objects also suggest that designers are exploring ways of moving beyond ground-based landscaping, says Mike Swift, owner of CityScape Contracting, who points to examples in Leaside and the Kingsway, especially with modernist renovation projects. “You can only do so much with a walkway.”

The Light Cube at the home of Cheryl Swan and Alan Jette. (Virginia Macdonald)

Some are straightforward in their design and function: metre-high slabs made from concrete or wood slates, situated close to the sidewalk and inscribed with the house number.

Others serve multiple purposes. Designer Cindy Rendely cites a current project that uses a corten steel structure that functions as a guard rail for the front steps, supports the hand rail and shows the home’s address in laser cut lettering. For that project, she says, this corten element matches other materials used in the both the backyard and the interior.

Ms. Rendely points to another application, which is to use these structures to incorporate aspects of a home’s façade into a more integrated landscaping and renovation project. She cites an example in Forest Hill where the front wall of the home included a large chimney flue. Her recommendation was to work with the protruding brick mass “because it wasn’t going anywhere.”

Perforated aluminium and plexiglass structure for a Forest Hill home by Cindy Rendeley Architexture. (Bob Gundu)

The resulting object is a perforated aluminum and plexiglass “light box” that envelops the flue, and picks up on some white interior surfaces.

With the glass cube in front of Ms. Swan’s home, which Mr. Loblaw describes as purely aesthetic, the final design emerged from mock-ups that were three by six feet and not surrounded by plants. Ms. Swan preferred a lower version, and Mr. Loblaw says it could have worked as an even smaller size. “Good design is about balance, scale and proportion,” he adds. “You have to be very careful that the object is in context.”

He points out that such vertical landscaping elements don’t necessarily need to be made from durable materials, which tend to be more expensive. Mr. Loblaw’s firm has designed cubes made from shrub species such as yews or boxwoods.

Corten steel structure that functions as a guard rail for the front steps of a Toronto home, by Cindy Rendeley Architexture. (Bob Gundu)

Because these objects are situated in front yards and are therefore potentially more exposed to pranks or vandalism, Ms. Rendely adds that they should be constructed from durable and easily repaired materials. “It can’t be too precious.”

She also points out that while designers are experimenting with new shapes and materials, such markers shouldn’t be too obtrusive otherwise they risk becoming less of a design element and more of a status symbol.

Ms. Swan admits that she was initially concerned about how her neighbourhoods would respond. Most of the homes on her street have traditional exterior stone walls and front yard landscaping, but none have anything that could be described as modernist or sculptural.

Two or three days after Mr. Loblaw’s firm completed the project, she says, a man who lived across the street ventured over to speak with her. “I thought, ‘Okay, here we go,’” recalls Ms. Swan, adding that she anticipated criticism. Instead, the neighbour expressed praise for the unusual glowing object. “He said, `I just wanted to tell you how much I liked your light box.’”

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