All renovations of old Toronto houses are not created equal. A number of amateur updates I’ve seen around town – especially from the early period of the local craze for antique brick dwellings – are remarkably careless.
As I’ve found, it’s just not good enough to hire a few workers and turn them loose to gut and strip out everything that gives the building character, then splash the interior with buckets of white paint. The result may be more ostentatiously “modern” than what was there before, but it almost always lacks soul, a sense of home, and a properly respectful attitude toward the neighbourhood and the streetscape. We need to have those civilized qualities in the houses we inhabit, quite as much as we need food and fresh air and beauty.
Last week, I visited a modest Riverdale reno that effectively embodies this desirable place-making. It’s the handiwork of Toronto architect Kyra Clarkson, who has brought to her project both flair and punch.
The problem handed Ms. Clarkson by her clients – he’s a lawyer, she’s a doctor – involved opening up their typical Riverdale Edwardian to make way for a growing family. There were considerable constraints on how this could be done. For one thing, the house fit very tightly on its lot, so no lateral expansion was possible. And any proposal that entailed dropping an extra level on top of the house (which featured two storeys plus an attic) would certainly run afoul of city planning regulations.
The building, I should add, had already undergone one previous revision, in 2003. When the lawyer and doctor moved in that year, they asked Toronto architect Joe Lobko to consolidate the interior, which had been chopped up into flats, and break open the wall at the rear of the house. Mr. Lobko’s ground floor overhaul created an attractive flow of space from the kitchen (perched above the street in this hillside residence), through the dining area to the living room and beyond, to the outdoor terrace at the back. The clients wanted Mr. Lobko’s design on the house’s entrance level to be retained.
Which left Ms. Clarkson with the second floor and the attic to work with. Here, the architect made some interesting moves. She devoted the entire second level, for example, to the family’s sociable activities. There’s a playroom for the children (three, six and eight years old), and a family room. Large windows fore and aft admit south and north light into the middle of this storey – a welcome brightening of the usually dark interior of any old Toronto house.
The biggest challenge, however, was the attic, where all the bedrooms now had to go. Ms. Clarkson’s response to this test was deft and imaginative. She obtained permission from the city to pop up the roof a few feet, thereby creating a clerestory that invites sunlight into the hallway linking the three bedrooms. These bedrooms are not large. They couldn’t be.
But each has a distinctive character. The bright master suite has been furnished with a wide, handsome window that overlooks the laneway and nearby backyards. The bedroom for the three-year-old, at the middle of this level, is tall and quiet, with natural light filtering down from a high strip of windows. The couple’s two boys, six and eight, have a delightful room out of a story book: Their large dormer window, an expansion of a feature in the house’s original plan, permits a very urban, panoramic view of the street and the city beyond.
Ms. Clarkson’s attic scheme serves well the practical demands of a young, modern family that doesn’t mind lots of travelling up and down stairs. (I found the stairs uncommonly steep, and their transparent glass sides made them seem precarious, though my apprehension about climbing up and down the staircase may be due to personal idiosyncrasy.)
But Ms. Clarkson’s craft goes beyond structure here, into the service of the family’s aesthetic needs. I especially appreciated the architect’s use of intense colour in the attic: a cascade of bright yellow paint on the walls of the corridor, for example, and the expanse of vivid cobalt blue tile in the bathroom.
Architects should be bolder about proposing strong colour in their renovations, and their clients should be less easily pleased by the same old flat, white wall treatments. Colour can bring spatial richness and refinement to any architectural scheme, and it does exactly that job in Kyra Clarkson’s thoughtful Riverdale enhancement.