When she was a little girl, Kimberly Au saw Don Mills as a kind of wonderland. Visiting her aunt and uncle, who lived in the neighbourhood, “I’d wander through all these connected parks on my little purple tricycle,” she recalls. “It was so green, so beautiful, and I always said, ‘Wow!’”
Now she just has to look out her windows to get the same feeling: She now lives with her husband and daughter in a Don Mills house that backs onto one of the neighbourhood’s “greenway” parks.
They commissioned the house from architect Cheryl Atkinson to take full advantage of the site.
With a lush courtyard, lots of glass and a layout carefully sculpted to build on the strengths of the lot, it offers a contemporary update on the verdant suburban living that Don Mills was designed 50 years ago to offer.
Ms. Au and her husband, Kenneth So, started planning this house while they were still childless, living in a loft in the Entertainment District.
The couple was seeking a frankly contemporary house with room for a family and, of course, “it was important for us to bring the outside in,” Ms. Au says.
For Ms. Atkinson, who was then working at the high-design firm Teeple Architects, this all sounded like common sense. “They had lived in a condo, and they were used to contemporary living. Every detail I suggested, they said, ‘Of course.’”
This is, in one sense, an ideal place for inventive architecture. Don Mills, including the recently transformed Don Mills Centre a few blocks away, is ground zero for Modernist residential design in Canada. Its planning and development in the postwar period included some of the brightest young minds in Canadian design.
On the other hand, the street where Mr. So and Ms. Au bought was filled with mediocre builders’ housing, bungalows that could have landed in any postwar subdivision.
They had theirs torn down, and with Ms. Atkinson and local master builder Derek Nicholson, they set out to thoughtfully build new.
The budget was relatively modest, and they didn’t want their home to reach monster-home scale.
Ms. Atkinson’s most important response was to put a twist on the typical Toronto house.
Rather than a long, narrow box with windows front and back, she suggested a house that stretched lengthwise across the lot.
“This means you take advantage of the back views, with a south exposure over the park,” she says.
Then, she suggested carving away a front corner of the house and placing a courtyard in the middle.
These are straightforward ideas, but they make the act of entering the house rather complex. From the street, you see a front façade of grey ironspot brick and cedar siding.
Then you walk past it to turn a corner into the courtyard – lushly landscaped with groundcovers, grasses and Japanese maples.
Here is the front door, which in turn brings you into a glass-lined, two-storey foyer.
“We were trying to make a combined space and bring the courtyard in by dematerializing the facade,” Ms. Atkinson says. The large glass panes (standard commercial windows) do this, bringing the courtyard and the adjacent rooms into an ensemble.
From here, the logic of the 2,700-square-foot house’s design becomes clear. In the front wing is a living room, with a bedroom above; in the the rear wing is a kitchen and dining room, with two bedrooms above.
Tucked in behind a wall by the door is a powder room and closet. Ms. Atkinson put these “servant spaces,” as she calls them, borrowing from the great architect Louis Kahn, in their own separate area to clarify the plan of the other rooms. It works very well. (Mr. So, an eager handyman, has built out the downstairs powder room himself. An IT professional, he is also clearly a pretty good tiler and woodworker.)
Above the foyer, a bridge made of glass and cold-rolled steel connects the two wings. The rear one is the showcase, an expansive, but perfectly proportioned, space with large windows that bring in vistas of the yard, and the park beyond.
“Everyone wants a large room to live and entertain, so we arranged it sideways to make a very large room,” Ms. Atkinson says wryly.
Here as elsewhere, you are never far from a window.
“Almost every room in this house has windows on three sides,” she says, “and that makes a tremendous difference to the experience of the house.”
From the living room and kitchen, the backyard, the park and the sky are all very present, as in all the best Modernist houses.
The room’s large scale is broken up by an informal mix of materials.
A glass pendant lamp by Vancouver’s Bocci hangs over a massive dining table made from a live-edge walnut slab that the couple picked out themselves at a lumberyard in Cambridge. A few vintage touches – a teak sideboard, an ancient Telefunken radio, a Modernist brass wall hanging – lend some spice to the building’s grey slate floors and black-framed aluminum windows.
Next door is the kitchen, but, Ms. Au says, “We didn’t want the kitchen to look like a kitchen.” So Ms. Atkinson designed it with no upper cabinets; instead there’s just a beautiful shelf in walnut, fabricated to match the rest of the kitchen by millworker Kent Aggus. The countertops are in Calacatta Oro, a marble that has a rich chocolate-milk quality.
The interior is enriched by the views of the surrounding environment. Upstairs, the couple’s master bedroom gets the same vistas, only improved by height: a corner window and balcony look over the greenway, “so we almost feel like it belongs to us,” Ms. Au says.
This is a payoff of the promise that brought them, like so many before them, to Don Mills. And now that they have a young daughter, another set of young legs is exploring that rich, green landscape – while returning to a home that is just as beautifully made as the landscape.