Toronto architect Ian MacDonald belongs to an old tribe of expert country-house designers that has numbered Andrea Palladio and Thomas Jefferson in its ranks, and, closer to our own time, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
The creative people in this tradition have brought to the table a flair for planning houses that are integral features of given landscapes, not careless intrusions. They have understood that a successful rural villa meant for a wealthy urban client can’t be just a city mansion plunked down outside town. If it’s to be something better than so much show-off, it has to frame a specific landscape, agricultural or wild or a combination. And it should be a place embedded in the landscape – a building that’s safe and secure, of course, but also open to the weather and skies and green nature round about.
Ever since the 16th-century heyday of Palladio, rich people have often ignored this classical tradition with awful results. Victorian industrialists, for example, put up some gruesome pseudo-medieval piles in England’s countryside, and Southern Ontario’s hilltops and fields are dotted with sprawling architectural mistakes. But as I was reminded last week, the old, high art of the important country house is alive and well in at least one corner of Caledon, a largely rural (and famously posh) municipality northwest of Toronto.
The place I visited is a hilly parcel of land, a little less than 100 acres of it, covered by hay fields, meadows and woodlots. Before the present owners took possession of the property, the only structures there were a 19th-century stone farmhouse, a barn and a few other out-buildings, all clustered near the road. Into a small dip at the head of a shallow gulley on this property, Ian MacDonald has now set down something new: a 4,300-square-foot country house that is an especially fine instance of high-end rural architecture.
Its stylistic vocabulary is modernist, and, like the successful rural homes produced in the last century by the modern movement, it has been designed to open toward all the natural and man-made beauties of the site. (The seminal modern designers were fanatics about light and air and wide views.)
Looking out through the towering glass walls in the open-plan living and dining area of the house, for instance, the visitor is given a variety of pastoral prospects. In one, the old barn stands in the middle distance, framed on one side by the gulley slope, and on the other side, by a sequence of small connected ponds dropping away from the house.
Glancing in another direction, one sees the long, weedy back of a hill nearby, a feature that stops the eye from going farther and makes the house seem enclosed, protected, nestled down into the attractively unrefined landscape. The green roof, composed of native grasses, further reinforces this sense that Mr. MacDonald’s house belongs here, in this meadow, and nowhere else.
Not everything was perfect about the classic modern house. In their striving for transparency and clean-lined simplicity, the less talented modernists sometimes went too far, creating glass boxes without intimacy and aesthetic appeal. This is a mistake that Mr. MacDonald has definitely not made here.
Like the variously cultivated and wild landscape that surrounds it, this house offers a range of spatial and sensuous experiences. Entering the front door, for example, one descends from the vestibule by way of a long ramp. On one side is a handsomely rough plank-formed concrete wall. On the other is a large expanse of glass. Beyond it is a series of small pools that step down parallel to the ramp, and, back of the watercourse, a barrier made of stacked granite blocks. As one arrives at the bottom of this strongly defined processional route, the high-ceilinged main living zone gracefully broadens out.
Stone, form-cast or polished concrete, glass and white plaster, wood (warm white oak for the floors and cabinetry, Douglas fir for the unpainted rafters and roof supports that soar overhead), corrugated steel (recalling the fabric of silos and barns): These are some of the materials Mr. MacDonald has used here, juxtaposing and rhyming them like words in a poem. Illumination, too, is an important ingredient of the architect’s palette: In addition to the hard sunshine reflected off the treeless meadows through the glass walls, softer radiance is captured by snorkel-like skylights and scattered downward into the interior.
Clearly, not everyone would like this house as much as I do. The many upscale fans of flabby historical pastiche – Oakville, Ont., seems to be full of them – would hate the building’s taut, strong modern rhythms. But Ian MacDonald’s Caledon project is surely one of the most outstanding country houses to go up recently in this part of the world.