For Torontonians enduring the city’s early January weather, next summer must seem impossibly far off. The worst of the winter is, more than likely, yet to come; and many weeks will pass before we can confidently stow away snow boots and mitts once and for all.
But the very bleakness of this time of year makes it a good moment to think forward to what’s waiting for us in a future that is not, after all, so very distant – things such as swims in lakes, barbeques on the deck and other pleasures of the warm months. And, of course, many Toronto people enjoy love cottage life.
Toronto architect Charles Gane is looking forward to April, when he will open up his 2,000-square-foot Georgian Bay cottage for its first complete season.
Mr. Gane designed and built this deeply personal project for a wilderness landscape lashed by furious summer storms and lit up by magnificent sunsets. The rugged, distinctive setting has given rise, over many decades, to a certain kind of cottage-country house that, to many observers, seems particularly well-suited to its location.
Typically, it is a wooden structure hunkered down among the rocks and trees beside a lake or river, and its usual demeanour is defensive vis-à-vis the harsh weather common in those northerly latitudes. Its architectural roots lie in the modest, rustic cabins that city people put up throughout the region in the early years of the 20th century – shelters inspired, in turn, by hunting camp shacks and rural out-buildings.
Not so Mr. Gane’s flat-roofed, long-lined cottage. The most obvious material siblings of this glass-walled house are the several mid-rise condominium blocks the architect has recently executed in the downtown core for developer Peter Freed. From these structures come the cottage’s sturdy, tall glazing system, imported from the condo culture of the city into Georgian Bay to withstand wind and rain.
Because he trusts this standard mass-produced system to keep the interior snug and dry – Mr. Gane does not share the trepidations of critics about the durability of contemporary high-rise glazing – he has fully exposed the two-storey cottage to the weather by boosting it to the highest place on its four-acre site.
From this vantage-point, the house is very open to the shifting lights of the summer sky, to the gleam off the deep, rock-ribbed inlet it hovers over, to the low, variously green, stony and watery horizon. An expanse of dark-framed glass, 70-feet long, affords a panoramic view of the surroundings from the open-plan living, dining and kitchen area. Like the exterior fabric, the interior appointments are simple and straightforward. The floors are polished concrete, the ceilings, dining table and millwork have been fashioned from Douglas fir. The wood surfaces and trim relate the building to the traditional cottages of the region, though the overall sense of it is that of an airy, high-ceilinged, generously glazed loft in a converted downtown warehouse.
Indeed, this building is not timid about its family ties to architectural modernism. Its country cousins include Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s austere, glass and steel Farnsworth House, in backwoods Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s famously transparent and abstract Glass House in Connecticut. Other modernist relatives, closer to us in time and space, are the elegant, serene rural villas by Toronto architect Ian MacDonald – although Mr. MacDonald’s houses, unlike Mr. Gane’s visually prominent cottage, characteristically nestle down into the landscape round about.
It could be argued, of course, that a building with so evident a modernist pedigree just doesn’t belong in the countryside popularized by the Group of Seven and cherished by generations of cottagers as a wild and ancient place. I am sympathetic to this argument, and I have admired several contemporary cottages whose designers went out of their way to honour the traditions of vernacular architecture in the area.
But when it is effective, modernism embodies the plainness and honesty we appreciate about barns and silos, fishing camps, wilderness huts and cabins. Mr. Gane’s cottage is a good example of such forthrightly modernist design, as uncomplicated by allusions and furbelows as a canoe. It does belong where it is, providing spacious shelter for urban people who want what Georgian Bay has long promised and faithfully delivered: the experience of summertime nature raw.