Bob Bergman spent 18 months building a house for his family, and he's happy that you probably won't notice. "The design is very subtle," he says of his home on Richmond Street West. "You don't see it the first few times you pass by." And when you do spot the 2 ½-storey building, you may not be sure what it is. It has the rectangular form and red brick of a 19th-century loft building, a huge display window, and the slim proportions of a Victorian house.
In fact, it's a careful blend of these building types and styles, designed by Kohn Shnier Architects for a family who wanted modern, loft-like space with a hint of domesticity. On its block, a grab bag of Victorian cottages and 20th-century workplaces, it is a perfect fit.
The unique character of the block helped persuade Mr. Bergman and his wife to move here. Literally steps from the most vibrant section of Queen Street West, it's low-traffic, mostly residential and usually quiet. The housing stock was a different story; when they started looking several years ago, there weren't any contemporary houses being built. "We really liked the location," he says, "but I like modern homes, and you just couldn't find that here."
Enter Martin Kohn, a friend and a partner at Kohn Shnier Architects. His firm has a reputation for inventive buildings that are a bit louder than their Toronto-modern peers - for instance, an elementary school with a big set of bleachers instead of a front foyer. But in this case, Kohn thought the house should take a "respectful" attitude to its context.
"This is meant to be very quiet," Mr. Kohn says of the two-bedroom, 2,120-square-foot house. "It acknowledges that there are nice things about the old housing in Toronto: the visual solidness of it, and the red brick, which really defines Toronto. And it's unusual that there are so many houses downtown. That allows families to live downtown in a fairly conventional way. We wanted to show respect for all of that."
Accordingly, the house's front façade lines up with those of the neighbours, and its boldest features are half-hidden. But if you look hard, you'll spot lustrous zinc siding up on the third floor. And the broad windows, framed in Spanish red cedar, reveal an extremely tall, open living room stepping away from the street.
That living room is the house's most public space: It's got big sliding doors, polished-concrete floors and white walls worthy of a gallery. And while Mr. Bergman doesn't mind having his living room on display - "people can look in," he says; "they're just going to see a group of people in a house" - the rest of the home unfolds out of sight, and to a more surprising rhythm.
Start at the front entrance. After you've walked up a long ramp to the door and stepped in, the house seems to grow. "It's like going through the looking-glass," Mr. Bergman says. "It immediately feels much bigger on the inside." You can make a U-turn into the living room; or step up to the kitchen at the rear, with its folded Ls of marble countertops and mahogany cabinets; or turn sharply left and run down a flight of stairs to the basement.
Windows and internal gaps offer glimpses in every directions - forward, back, down, up, out a window to the side, and through the open risers of the staircase to the second floor. It's an experience of surprising and slightly disorienting complexity.
Partly this is a product of history. "Many of the idiosyncrasies of the house," Mr. Kohn says, "have to do with what was here before" - an early 20th-century house, which Mr. Bergman and his wife were hoping to renovate. It proved to be too ramshackle to keep, but for zoning reasons, they retained fragments of its walls and floors. The new house, like the old, has strange half-steps at the middle of each floor, which Mr. Kohn turned to his advantage with small cutouts in the floors and walls: For instance, you can look from the second-floor bedrooms diagonally down into the living room and right out of the house.
The ingredients of the house are actually quite simple: family room and kitchen downstairs, two bedrooms and two baths on the second floor, and a living room on the third floor with a wraparound patio. The individual rooms are tall, handsomely proportioned, and fitted out with built-in storage in every corner. The master bedroom, for instance, has a headboard that hooks sideways into night tables and then an attached closet behind; all the carefully sculpted cabinetry, made of the same shade of mahogany, creates the feeling of a yacht's interior.
And as on a boat (even a very nice one), nothing seems superfluous. None of the rooms is huge or flashy; each gains luxury from the warmth of its surfaces and its precisely controlled volumes.
There are a lot of quirks, though, if you know where to look. On the second floor hallway, for instance, is a big door; open it and you run into a fixed array of vertical slats that run straight down to the front door below. It's a maximum-security balcony, with bars crafted out of rich mahogany.
Mr. Bergman was there to oversee every such detail. An experienced amateur builder, he took time away from his job to serve as the general contractor. He also took on a few elements of the design, selecting ochre subway tile for the kitchen and bathrooms and designing a gorgeous backyard with ipe hardwood deck and cedar fencing.
But it's the adventurous spirit of the Bergmans that makes the house so interesting. Few people would hire an architect to build them a contemporary house with just two bedrooms. And with the Bergmans now parents - their daughter was born during construction - they are even more unusual in how they're choosing to live and where.
But, interestingly, they're not alone. Just across the street is another house with a contemporary interior: a Georgian cottage that's sprouted a dark-grey, three-storey tower by architects Natale Scott. Down the block is another thoughtfully designed residence, a small industrial building that's been converted by Paul Raff Studio. They aren't ostentatious buildings, and their addresses don't have the cachet of a street in Yorkville or Forest Hill, but if they are half as interesting as this Kohn Shnier project, they're signs of highly artful design quietly remaking a worn stretch of the city.
Editor's note: An earlier online version and the original newspaper version of this story included a photo caption that stated incorrectly that the image was of the living room. It is in fact the third-floor family room. This online version has been corrected.