Globe Real Estate
The Perfect House

JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
17 October 2003
The Globe and Mail


 

For eight years, a young Toronto couple put up with plaster dust and bother in a struggle to turn a narrow, dilapidated Parkdale Victorian into their perfect house.

They freshened and fixed whatever wasn't falling apart, while pushing rooms open and overhauling to accommodate their home-based Internet enterprise. In the end, nothing worked. By last summer, the tight architectural corsets and constraints typical of Toronto's old working-class housing had baffled their best efforts to make the house a home. The only thing left to do was move to a place that didn't need a makeover.

What they found, instantly fell in love with and bought is one of south-east Oakville's most unusual houses.

In a town that loves dwellings drenched in nostalgia for Old World elegance chateaux, villas, that kind of thing this boldly Modernist composition of glass and steel is strictly dormer-free. With floor-to-ceiling windows and airy volumes the living-room area is defined by a clear span rising two storeys from the floor this 5,000-square-foot house would argue out loud with the heavy neo-traditionals nearby, were it not kept off the street by a thick stand of old forest trees on its most public sides.

The principal entry to the house is a glass door in glass wall, set deep behind a broad porch. Once inside, the visitor is faced by a wall and a choice: to the left, into the couple's cul-de-sac home office area, or right, into the light-flooded living room and beyond. From the living room, the house's open space flows in abrupt steps past a floating wall of glass brick into the ample kitchen, which is focused on a massive restaurant stove, and, in another direction past the fireplace into the dining area.

The orientation of views toward the north the south-facing skin of the house is largely opaque means that the available natural light is gentle, and never hot. The bones of the structure are most beautifully exposed at night, when powerful artificial lighting is switched on inside, and the glass block of the house sparkles inside its shadowy perimeter of dark, tall tree-trunks.

This building was designed and constructed in the 1980s, according to its present owner, by Oakville architect Brian Bancroft for himself. (Mr. Bancroft could not be reached for comment.)

Despite its quite recent date, the house recalls the industrial-strength Modernism of the early twentieth century. It is a hymn to the factory and warehouse, and, in every girder, bolt, welded seam and glass wall, the architect expresses his gratitude to Modern masters from Walter Gropius and the early Frank Lloyd Wright to Le Corbusier.

While the tenants are currently pleased with their glass house and very glad to be done with the endless renovation of that stubborn Victorian I wonder how they will feel about it in, say, five years.

Mr. Bancroft's design is terribly earnest in its homage to the Modern heroes, like a fan letter written by an awestruck undergraduate. Nothing softens or surprises the strict discipline of the open-plan grid. The walls hit the floor hard, without a baseboard to ease the transition of planes.

Space is made to flow even when it makes no sense for it to do so. The doors to the house's few private room, for example, are narrow and somewhat mean, as though the architect allowed them into his scheme only under protest. (While a door was sensibly inserted by subsequent owners, the original scheme provided for nothing but open passage between the master bedroom and the rest of the house.) The sense of studious austerity in the house is heightened by the blank whiteness of virtually every surface apart from a bit of window trim and one short wall re-painted by the new owners. This clinical, too-narrow palette can be changed, of course, with a few buckets of latex, and some judicious application of stone or wood textures. (At present, the only visible wood in the place is under your feet.)

The problem of privacy the built-in headache of every Modernist glass house will be more intractable.

I certainly have no solution, other than removal of the whole kit and caboodle to some secluded woodlot in the country. Any kind of screening, whether blinds or drapes, compromises the wonderful things promised by walls of glass: a seamless visual exchange between inside and outside, and the clean gleam and glint of Modernism.

The remorseless system of the house will make it hard to renovate. But I would not be astounded to learn that the owners once the architectural honeymoon is over are back at it, in the midst of all the scaffolding and paint and dust they thought they'd left behind forever in Parkdale.

 

 

 

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