Though busy Torontonians have turned it into a popular getaway destination, southern Ontario’s Grey County hardly fits the usual definition of cottage country. It offers a rolling, rural landscape of farms, orchards and timbered hills, of secluded swamps and broad green valleys – not the wild, angular expanses of ancient rocks and glittering lakes famously portrayed by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven painters.
But if more civilized than Haliburton or Muskoka, Grey County still has its savage spots. Take, for example, the setting of a Grey Highlands weekend place – the owners call it the House in Frogs Hollow – that I recently visited.
The runoff of countless springs has carved the land into small hills and dells, and stripped away the scanty topsoil from some hills, exposing the rosy clay that lies beneath. On other hillsides, the ground is kept intact by tree roots, scruffy weeds and low shrubs. This is not an easy landscape, or one that offers grand vistas. It is weathered, bumpy patch of ground, battered by the age-old forces of winter and erosion.
In crafting a house for this location, Betsy and Shane Williamson (principals in the Toronto firm of Williamson Chong Architects) chose to move with the natural aesthetics of the site and create a dwelling as uncompromising as the land round about. The result of their efforts is a handsome 2,000-square-foot house – it’s hardly a cottage – suitable for heavy year-round use by three generations of an active Toronto family.
Viewed from a distance along the little road that leads into the property from the main highway, the building (which is tucked into a hillside) appears to be composed of a large, rusty red and mostly opaque oblong volume daringly balanced atop a long, light-coloured concrete wall. The effect is dramatic, and is meant to be: The architects want the first things a visitor experiences to be the strong, plain modernist geometry of their house, and its visual continuity with the rough country the visitor has just driven through.
Coming nearer, alongside and into the house, taking in its subtleties, I found that my initial impression of the structure, as something forthright and resolved, did not fade. The concrete wall, 75 feet long and just 10 inches thick, cuts like a knife through the composition, lightening its bulk. The reddish oblong, which contains three sleeping rooms and a fourth that gives onto a terrace inserted into the hillside, hovers over an open-plan living, dining and kitchen area surrounded on three sides by tall glass walls opening toward the landscape. There is no mechanical cooling. Heating in winter is provided by sunshine streaming through the high windows and by a radiant system embedded in the concrete floors.
If there is one thing about this ensemble that doesn’t work, it’s the doing of the clients, not the architects. I’m talking about the large bed of abounding red roses planted at the foot of one glass wall. To each his own, of course, but roses seem overly citified in this context, too sophisticated and urbane for this harsh natural environment. The edge where the rugged house and the rugged landscape meet should have been kept hard and clear of any fancying-up.
That said, what the Williamsons have done is a mindful, well-wrought contribution to the art of residential building in the Ontario countryside. But the House in Frogs Hollow is more than just a good formal accomplishment. It has also provided the architects with opportunities to explore the application of computer science (which, they told me, interests them greatly) to the manufacture of architectural ornaments.
One site of experimentation is the staircase immediately inside the front door. Instead of bringing down the under-frame of the stair crisply and straight to the entrance floor, the architects have fabricated an attractive wooden sculpture that billows and flows like a wave of water. This detail has been created by computer modelling and software-driven cutting.
A second site is the exterior cladding on the upper volume of the house. The Williamsons could have done the normal thing, and merely slapped up ordinary planks to cover the building’s frame. Instead, they developed a software program that enabled them to cut and shape thin timber slats into several different forms. Attached side by side on the frame and stained with iron-oxide pigment, these wooden elements generate a rhythmic frieze of three-dimensional incident that is as engaging, in its quiet rippling way, as Victorian barge-board decoration.
In fact, there’s something Victorian about the Williamsons’ concern with ornament. The European and American modernists sternly frowned on gussying up their geometric solids. But as we find here, intelligent decoration can effectively counterpoint strict modern volumes. I hope the Williamsons get more chances to apply their high-tech knowledge to the old challenge of embellishing the places we dwell in.