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(Tom Arban)
(Tom Arban)

Country modern: Architectural poetry in the land of siding Add to ...

You normally go to the Georgian Bay resort community of Collingwood, for the skiing, the hiking, the mountain biking – not for the architecture.

As I found on a drive through the place last week, residential development over the past 20 years has left the town and its environs a wasteland of slushily sentimental condo blocks and tract houses with about as much originality and sincerity as a Hallmark get-well card.

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Go deep into the drecky subdivisions round about Collingwood, however, and you occasionally find a holiday retreat that clearly belongs to another order of being. For one thing, the craft of the dwelling usually suggests that the architect who designed it actually knew how to draw. For another, the house might well embody an interesting, thoughtful response to the lay of the Ontario land, in both physical and cultural dimensions. It need not look like a barn. But some of the smartest contemporary projects I’ve seen in non-urban Ontario riff off traditional farm buildings, silos, milking sheds.

That said, a fine Collingwood house, the work by Toronto architect Ian MacDonald that prompted my visit last week, has nothing at all to do with barns.

Its architectural vocabulary is entirely modernist. Its atmosphere is quietly rich and complex, free from even a hint of farm. Its lines and rhythms are taut, but not severe. And its interior surfaces – plain white walls punctuated by tempestuous abstract paintings, ruddy jatoba flooring, sapele millwork – communicate a subtle sensuous electricity that is distinctively urbane, like Prada.

But unlike a fashion statement by Prada, the building could only exist exactly where it is. Designed to fit its site by Mr. MacDonald for a pair of Toronto lawyers and their two small children, the 3,400-square-foot weekend residence responds to all that is around it.

Like a virtuoso modern shoe side-stepping a mud puddle, for example, the house shuns the visual clutter of the neighbourhood by withdrawing from the street as far as possible. It turns an inert, black-clad face to the world. It could be mistaken for some kind of utility structure – a hydro sub-station, perhaps, that the authorities have not bothered to doll up to look like a normal house.

But while the neighbours get a shrug, nature gets the dwelling’s undivided attention. Blue Mountain, locally famous for its hiking trails and ski runs, rears up immediately behind the house from a deciduous forest floor, and the L-shaped building yawns wide to capture as much of the slope as possible. Sitting at the large dining room table under the double-height ceiling, the observer can look out through tall walls of glass and take in the rear garden, with its long swimming pool, and the little mountain from base to crest.

I would not call the interior snug. All the floor-to-ceiling glazing, the exposure of the inside spaces to the natural (if always peopled) mountain landscape, surely make that word inappropriate. More exact terms for the sense of this project might be elegant (if that’s not taken to mean chilly, or minimalistically austere, or stylishly classy) and restrained – meaning neither stingy nor slick, but, rather, free of show-offish effects, even those with good modernist pedigrees.

Perhaps the best word to describe the house, though also the one most easily misunderstood, is poetic. Mr. MacDonald is one of Canada’s best devisers of the architectural equivalents of the poetic line and stanza, the sequencing of space and material to create the memorable events we call places.

The kitchen is one such place. It is compressed by a low ceiling and a raised floor: intimate, business-like – not the beating heart of the house, but rather something practical and necessary and well-articulated, like a hand. Yet even here there is surprise, in the form of an unexpected window that provides anyone working in the kitchen (which feels like the “back” or innermost precinct of the house) with a precisely edited peek at who stands before the front door.

The dining area is intended to accommodate large dinner parties, and it is correspondingly expansive, public, airily open in tone and atmosphere. The living room area is tighter, more condensed, with furniture clustered beneath an imposing fireplace. Apart from the children’s bedrooms, which repeat, the principal spaces come with separate identities. Each features a unique harmony of minutely calibrated volumes and voids, carefully orchestrated appearances and disappearances of the stuff the house is carved from, variations in tempo and pacing of a simple array of deluxe materials. That’s architectural poetry.

Having said every wicked thing about Collingwood that I can think of, I should add one thing to be thankful for. It’s the willingness of certain developers, such as the one responsible for the subdivision Mr. MacDonald’s house is in, to allow the odd architect to colour outside the lines and create an engaging moment or two in the midst of much banality. Due to this occasional flex, a few architectural gems have been deposited in Collingwood – but none more refined than Ian MacDonald’s getaway house by the mountain.

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