Among people who are able to commission deluxe new single-family dwellings for themselves, but who wouldn’t be caught dead in faux-chateaux, the International Style is as popular today as it has been at any point in its long career. Certainly, in every one of the nine years I’ve been writing this column, I have come across newly built large houses with the flat roofs, boxy geometries, open-plan interiors, and glass walls made famous, especially in the first couple of decades after 1945, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Walter Gropius, Rudolph Schindler and other practitioners of anti-historical residential modernism.
Not that the new modernism is exactly what it was in the middle of the last century. Contemporary modernists are wont to put inventive, individual artistic spins on what they’ve inherited from the past, for example – as indeed they should. The results of these moves that I’ve encountered are often fresh and vigorous, and they give new legs to important cultural ideas of yesteryear.
But close, careful adherence to the classic gestures of the glass-box masters can still produce important homes with the impressive timelessness, openness and freedom from historical ornament that the mid-century modernists advocated. A couple of weeks ago, I visited a recent house of the no-nonsense kind I’m talking about here – not in Toronto, where something like this would hardly be unusual, but in the posh, stodgy suburb of Oakville, where taste in new luxury homes runs to the timidly fanciful and old-fashioned.
There is definitely nothing timid about this building. Crafted for a couple with two teenaged sons by Toronto designer Guido Costantino, the 5,300-square-foot, two-storey urban villa is composed of bold oblong volumes with walls of floor-to-ceiling glass in black aluminum frames, dark grey brick and sheets of black anodized aluminum. The house turns a stern face to the street, with strong, long horizontal shapes that insist on the earth-bound character of the composition and large expanses of frosted and clear glass that conceal more than they reveal.
Interestingly, there is no obvious front door. Approaching the streetside façade by way of the wide concrete slabs that separate it from the lawn, the visitor realizes only at the last minute that there is in fact a passageway through the glass wall into the interior, created when one of the tall, translucent panels swings open. The entrance was always a problem for the residential modernists, since defining it firmly meant disturbing the abstract perfection of the formal structure. Mr. Costantino has resolved this issue by eliminating the traditional front door altogether, thereby keeping the exterior rhyming of glass, brick and metal just about as pure and simple as it’s possible to be.
This determination to keep things plain extends into the internal spaces of the house. One slips past the frosted panel at the front not into a foyer, but into an open territory from which the various unwalled interior places extend. To the left is the dining area and kitchen, and to the right, down a step, is the conversation zone (which would be the living room if it were separated in some definite way from what lies outside it.) Straight ahead is a carefully constructed vista that carries the eye straight along the polished concrete floor, through the glass wall at the rear, and out to the swimming pool in the back garden. Mr. Costantino’s attention to linking inside and outside, and his use of high glass walls to make that linkage happen, are among the features of this house that clearly reveal its modernist pedigree.
They aren’t the only ones. Along with formal strictness and great transparency, the monochromatic colour scheme throughout – white interior walls, black trim, floors clad in grey concrete or bleached maple – also recall the aesthetic priorities of the modern movement. Some contemporary designers in the modernist tradition might have added a few dashes of colour, or gathered the open spatial flow into discrete nodes, just to give each area within the scheme a little special character.
But not Mr. Costantino. He has preferred to obey his muses – especially Mies – to the letter, and the outcome is this spacious, graceful and austere Oakville house. It’s a credible tribute to venerable ideas that continue to inspire good residential design in a cultural moment that, in most respects, is very different from the Cold War epoch in which architectural modernism triumphed.