What do you get when you take a free-thinking Dutch family, introduce a couple of globe-trotting experimental architects, and set them loose on a red-brick Victorian?
In the case of the Janus House in Cabbagetown, a few surprises. Starting with a 1,700-square-foot semi-detached house, the architects Studio NminusOne stripped it to its original state, carefully restored its Victoriana to the last board, and then gave it a twin: a contemporary three-storey wing on the back capped with a bold facade of rusting Cor-Ten steel.
According to the architects, Carol Moukheiber and Christos Marcopoulos, the new portion of the house is just as important as the original, and they deliberately gave it a distinct set of spaces and materials. “We think of it as a new house,” says Moukheiber, who is half of NminusOne and a professor at the University of Toronto. “It is an addition, but the scale and the variation make it really like a separate building.”
Hence the name they have chosen for it – an allusion to the Roman god of gateways, who has two faces. You begin to understand the theme as you walk down the side of the house, next to a dense row of townhouses. From here you can see the Janus House’s red brick Toronto give way to grey stucco and then orange steel. At the front are roof gables; on the back is a facade of huge glass panes, surrounded by the rusting reddish tones of the Cor-Ten and a wide frame of black steel.
“From the back, the building looks like a big cartoon character, with one eye,” says Marcopoulos. “And we decided to give it some eyeliner.” That is, the black steel around the windows – which Marcopoulos compares, soberly, to the eye makeup that football players wear on their cheekbones to reduce glare.
Whimsical metaphors come naturally to these two architects thanks, perhaps, to their career as academics and researchers: They work in a lab at U of T’s Daniels faculty of architecture that looks into “responsive architecture,” or the integration of computing and sensor technology into building systems. Marcopoulos also worked as an architect at top firms including OMA, where the brilliant Rem Koolhaas has refined a blend of poetic license with deep, hard-headed research.
The house, completed last summer, builds on that duality – as well as a split between old and new. It is divided precisely into two halves: on the inside, the original Victorian house has its charming rooms largely intact, with restored mouldings, and oak floors that pick up the colour of the original planks. For the back wing, the architects devised a simple box, about 30 feet by 20 feet by three storeys high. Its spaces are simple, rectilinear and bright – free of columns and generally open. They are extremely well designed. “We work hard to detail it so that it doesn’t look detailed,” says Marcopoulos, employing a term of the trade. “The walls meet the floor. The windows meet the walls. Boom! But detailing to get the effect is just as hard, even harder, than the opposite.”
The division between the original house and the addition is clearly marked in space. The two halves are split by a glass-enclosed side entrance and a vertical atrium that goes all the way to the roofline, lined with panels of sandblasted glass and carefully arranged mirrors. “It’s a wormhole,” Marcopoulos says. “When you go from one side to the other, you travel through time.”
For the owners, that division recalls European homes, and for them this feels entirely natural. The project was driven by Ghislaine Beckers, a Dutch emigré who lives here with her husband, her mother, and her two children. “When you build something new,” Beckers says matter-of-factly, “you build something that looks contemporary.”
Beckers, who came to Canada in 1984 to work as an interior designer, has brought an equally European sensibility to the furnishings and the interior. To complement the house’s collision of 19th and 21st century ideas, new she’s combined modern furniture with Eastern antiquites, batik rugs and plenty of loud colours. In the kitchen, above a backsplash of bianco carrera marble, she installed a series of shelves made from salvaged timber by cabinetmaker Kent Aggus of Built Work Design. A sober white oak dining table and vintage chairs meet faux-fur throws and kilim rug. This blend is very unusual, especially in Toronto. “People say that, but I don’t see it,” she responds. “In Europe, this is how you live.”
Though not, perhaps, with so many rooms. On the second floor, the 11-year-old Isabelle and 8-year-old son Lukas have bedrooms that look at each other across the atrium, one in the ‘old’ house, one in the new. Lukas has a small alcove to store his things and practice his favourite hobby, woodworking (an activity not beloved of many nervous Canadian parents). Then on the third level of the addition is an open loft space that serves as TV room and play area – essentially another rec room. This space has concrete floors and big, though carefully shaded, windows. Victorian Toronto never dreamed of a room like this, and neither would most of today’s Rosedale residents.
But the architects, like their clients, aren’t too constrained by the design customs of Toronto. They moved here from San Francisco only in 2007, and this house is the first thing they have built here. It is a chance for them to make their mark; after all, a Victorian house renovation is the archetypal challenge for architects here. And, with their boldly two-faced approach, they have.
It’s most interesting at the moments where new meets old. The stairs from the first to second floor are Victorian woodwork, carefully restored. But the stair up to the third floor is steel, with flat treads of thin steel plate and a structure that appears to rest right on top of the wood rail and pickets. That is an illusion; those wood stairs need contemporary reinforcements. But they’ve have found them, and with smart interventions like this, so has the Victorian architecture of Toronto.