Over the course of his career as a custom home designer active in Mississauga, David Small has tailored his work to fit the tastes of all manner of clients. He has done Arts and Crafts bungalows, Tudor mansions, French Provincial chateaux, Cape Cod cottages and houses cast in yet other styles out of the all-too-predictable suburban pattern book.
But when the time came to fashion a new 3,800-square-foot dwelling for himself, his wife and twin daughters, Mr. Small threw that popular book out the window and took a chance on modernism. The recently completed result, which stands in Mississauga’s comfortable, forested Gordon Woods neighbourhood, is original, though not radical enough to shake up the neighbours, staid but not fusty, and altogether fresh and clean-lined. The designer calls its look “natural modern.” As things have turned out, that’s an apt handle for what he has done.
The “natural” part of Mr. Small’s phrase refers to two significant properties of the scheme. One is the prominence he has given to rural materials, inside and out. The soffits under the deep roof overhangs are lined with warm unpainted wood, and the rhythmically opening and shutting exterior is a combination of glass and stacked Wiarton limestone blocks. At the heart of the interior is a fireplace of limestone, and a hearth made from a huge chunk of the Canadian Shield quarried in Ontario’s French River district.
The design is also “natural” in the sense of “relaxed.” Mr. Small has delivered a design that is forthrightly modernist, though it has none of the sharp elbows and knees that some people think of when they hear the words “modern” and “house” mentioned in the same breath. Like other local residential designers whose work I’ve been seeing lately, Mr. Small has learned a thing or two from the European pioneers of the modern movement in architecture - things like economy of gesture, the importance of flow between inside and outside, and compositional clarity - but more from North America’s modern makers of solidly upper-middle-class housing.
The key figure here is Frank Lloyd Wright, and the key works in the ancestry of this design are Mr. Wright’s famous houses in the so-called “prairie style.” It’s a lineage that Mr. Small readily acknowledges, though any architecturally savvy visitor to his project would be able to spot Mr. Wright’s fingerprints without being told where to look.
Take, for example, the overhanging eaves of the strongly horizontal roofline, which handsomely cap each tall exterior wall and hold the vertical thrusts of the façade in check. And there are those clerestory windows high up the double-height walls of the open-plan dining area.
A less Wright-like touch is what might be called the “staging” of the house - by which I mean the shaping of the front façade and the zone in front of it to dramatize the grade-change between the entry level and the street. Leaving this house is not a matter of stepping from front door to sidewalk. One descends, instead, by way of a series of small plateaus, each a little lower than the one before it. The result is a graceful transition that deliberately distances the house from the city around it.
That distancing is, in fact, the aspect of the house that sets it farthest apart from the classic dwellings in the “prairie style.” Though Mr. Wright surely meant his homes for the well-off to look firmly rooted in the open landscape of the American mid-west, the residential buildings he designed are resolutely urbane and sophisticated. They belong in cities (or posh suburbs), and they would look odd if dropped into the countryside.
Mr. Small’s spacious family house, on the other hand, owes a large, direct debt to the Ontario cottage, and to the cottage country where one finds these dwellings. With its rough stone cladding and great rustic hearth, it doesn’t quite belong there in Gordon Woods, among the routine period knock-offs on large lots up and down the street. It’s definitely city-sized and otherwise citified - but if houses dream (and I believe they do), this one is dreaming of the French River.
I mean that as just a comment about this interesting project, not a criticism. Mr. Small’s residence embodies an effective infusion of much that’s artistically ground-breaking in Mr. Wright’s prairie-style houses by memories of Ontario’s northern wilderness. “Natural modern” is probably as good a description of David Small’s approach as you’ll find anywhere.