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(Peter Legris)
(Peter Legris)

Architecture

A worker's cottage for the 21st century Add to ...

The last time Gary McCluskie designed a house in Toronto, it was for the Canadian Opera Company. That was the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Mr. McCluskie, a partner at Diamond + Schmitt Architects, worked closely with Jack Diamond on that $180-million crystal palace.

This year he designed a more modest dwelling: a 600-square-foot addition to a century-old worker’s cottage near Bloor and Spadina, a little wood house that had plenty of open space in front. Now it is newly clad in matte steel siding and welcoming panels of glass.

What made it happen? Food, wine, friendship and hospitality. Mr. McCluskie goes back decades with the owners, lawyers Mark Rowlinson and Gail Misra, and he’s been a frequent guest at their house. “When I used to come for dinner, I used to say, you know, you could do something here,” he says, relaxing with the couple on Italian sofas in the newly added living room.







Specifically, he recalls, “there was a strong possibility of a front yard addition.” The cottage, built in 1880, was one of those survivors you see in west-side downtown neighbourhoods: part of the first wave of houses, it was here before developers marched in rows of brick Victorians. Like others of its vintage, Ms. Misra and Mr. Rowlinson’s house was set far back from the street. The house’s attached neighbour, which has an addition probably dating to the 1920s, stretched out 30 feet further.

That meant Ms. Misra and Mr. Rowlinson’s front lawn offered room to build without special zoning permission – which is a rarity downtown. For the couple, the opportunity was tempting. “Two or three years ago, we had decided we wanted to move or renovate,” Mr. Rowlinson recalls. Their home – about 1,000 square feet, including a 1998 addition on the back – had small public rooms and vaguely cottage-style interior details, and it wasn’t to their taste. “Both Gail and I had an affection for modernist architecture,” Mr. Rowlinson says, “and Gail was tired of living in old space.” The couple, who collect contemporary art, also wanted more good wall space to hold their collection.

Mr. McCluskie’s design sold them on a renovation.







In broad strokes, it is simple. The addition stacks two big rooms on the front, each with 15-foot ceilings: a living room downstairs and a grand guest room/den upstairs. The front door was pulled to one side, behind the addition, at what’s now the middle of the house. And at the back, the kitchen was blown out and rebuilt, with a monolith of black lacquer cabinetry, white CaesarStone counters and a modern steel pendant hanging down from the restored tin ceiling. In between, a new block of closets and a powder room were added. The house is now larger, but still not large, at 1,675 square feet.

Yet the details of the construction were complex. For one thing, a feature that seems effortless as you walk by it – the glass front corner of the living room, where the house seems to perch on two frameless windows – required a complex steel structure to support the front façade. “The steel for the front was done at the same time as the repairs to the original foundation,” Mr. McCluskie recalls. And that original foundation, which included an unplaned log with the bark intact, was rotting away. “The contrast between 1880 and today was amazing,” he says.

Mr. McCluskie, who has been with Diamond + Schmitt since 1986, is accustomed to more high-tech projects and problems, and yet he says he found continuity between this house and his work on, say, the Four Seasons Centre. “There is the interplay of solid and transparent elements,” he notes, “and the idea of one room serving as a sort of indoor plaza.” In the opera house, that is the lobby, with its stairs crossing theatrically behind a front curtain wall of glass; in this house it’s the living room, whose grand windows open up a visual corridor between the street and the middle of the house. (Both rooms can be closed off by drawing the blinds, too.) While the opera house attracted some criticism for not being flashy or iconic enough to suit its purpose, this design posed the opposite challenge: Ms. Misra and Mr. Rowlinson wanted a house whose form would fit the context, partly to appease their neighbours – though nobody complained in the end – and partly to suit their own Torontonian sense of modesty. The final house is, in its own way, responsive to the forms of adjacent buildings. “I like the play of the form and its verticality against the houses next door,” Mr. McCluskie says, “the play of the materials against the Victorian materials.” The horizontal lines in the steel siding echo the courses of the brick in the Edwardian house next door.







This is the sort of idea that is more apparent to a trained observer than to the average passerby, but it translates in this case to a modesty of scale and sober materials that don’t grab the eye. The house truly does fit into the mixed and slightly jumbled streetscape. Inside, though, the juxtaposition between the contemporary and the old is striking. Upstairs, in the den, a slit of glass at eye level reveals a tight slice of the house next door, specifically its blank wall of crackly yellow stucco. A vertical strip of windows looks down on the front door and its canopy – a rare perspective made possible by commercial curtain-wall window technology. (This is where it helps to have an architect who’s designed $100-million buildings.) There’s also some artistry at the joints of the house, where small original rooms step up into the larger, wide-open volumes at the front. That’s thanks to fine detail work by contractors Webb & Lashbrook, whom Mr. McCluskie and his clients shower with praise. The oak floor is consistent throughout, and the perfect planes of the new spaces harmonize with the subtly warped planes of the old house. “Once you go through a renovation like this, you realize that making things look simpler is far more complicated,” Mr. McCluskie says wryly.

Yet Ms. Misra and Mr. Rowlinson have now done it twice, and they’re happy with all the results. The addition at the back, designed in 1998 by architects Levitt Goodman with open volumes and plenty of wood, has aged well; this year it was left totally intact. But the new addition gives the house some visible edge, surprisingly large spaces and also a feeling of spaciousness that’s hard to achieve on such a tight lot. Toronto’s modernist architects – especially Jack Diamond – have often argued for the value of preserving older buildings, and Ms. Misra and Mr. Rowlinson’s house is a good case in point, a mix of new and old that’s imperfect but sometimes gorgeous. Where other people might have seen the unbeautiful old house as a teardown, they’ve transformed it into a home that suits their very modern needs.

And, yes, the needs of their art collection. Ms. Misra is especially pleased about this. “I wanted a more gallery-like feel to the home: more light, and more open space,” she says. “And it was a very different experience hanging art after we were finished.” Around the living room, two Edward Burtynsky photographs and an Yves Gauthier lithograph provide the proof, looking comfortable in the even wash of light from east and south. And on the coffee table, the couple has two books on display: Burtynsky’s new tome and a monograph on Diamond + Schmitt. Clearly, they’re proud that their collection includes a McCluskie.

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