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Architecture

Moving day at the Zeidlers Add to ...

When I visited the Rosedale home of Eberhard and Jane Zeidler one sunny afternoon last week, I found the dust of several decades lying thick on the now-empty book shelves in the soaring white living room.

The modernist furnishings (some of them, like the house itself, designed by Mr. Zeidler) had mostly disappeared. A few large, vivid paintings by John Meredith, Kay Graham, Gordon Rayner and other Canadian artists - reminders of colour-field abstraction's Toronto heyday in the 1960s - relieved the melancholy sense of emptiness that hung about the place.

But these canvases would soon be gone, along with the Zeidlers themselves, to make way for the house's new owners and their belongings. I was there on one of the last days the couple would spend in this 5,000-square-foot residence before they downsized across town into a suite in architect Peter Dickinson's handsome Benvenuto Apartments.







Stripped back to its strong bones, the Zeidlers' home since 1969 showed more clearly than ever the qualities that have made it a landmark in the story of architectural modernism in Toronto.

Take, for example, the relationship established by the house between its inhabitants and the landscape round about.

The site is on the steep, south-facing side of a wooded ravine, down which the building gracefully spills, engulfing and incorporating a stone triplex put up in 1917. Given the wonderful character of this situation - a swatch of southern Ontario countryside deep within the heart of the city - any modernist architect would have been tempted to demolish the older building completely and fashion in its place a simplistic glass box, a kind of viewing platform that gave on to the forest in every direction. Many of the early modernist architects in Mr. Zeidler's creative pedigree were born in the unpleasantly crowded, dark industrial cities of central Europe, and they came of age eager to spring architecture open to sunlight, nature and the sky.

In this project, however, Mr. Zeidler uses solid walls effectively to delimit and frame the views of the surrounding forest. In the living room, the tall south-facing windows and skylights emphasize the side of the ravine that rises in the distance, opposite the house. In the master bedroom suite, high in the treetops, the openings are horizontal and panoramic, exposing the interior to the sky and the full impact of sunshine. In the dining room, the aperture is small, affording a more intimate view of the nature that lies just outside the house's walls.





Another thing about this residence worth noting is the expressiveness of its structure - its politics, you might say.

The classic modern American house, from Frank Lloyd Wright down to the time of Neutra and Schindler and the mass-produced ranch-style, was inclined to be democratic, spatially speaking. In contrast to the verticality of the Victorian house, with its spires and turrets and sharply pitched roofs, the modern house was a horizontal affair, with rooms distributed equally, like free and equal citizens, on a single storey.

In designing his Rosedale house, Mr. Zeidler deployed the white walls and clean horizontal lines characteristic of Bauhaus modernism - he studied at the Bauhaus in Weimar, after all - while bringing back some of the old-fashioned hierarchy the modern masters tended to sweep away. The dormitory wing for the children - the Zeidlers reared four of them within this house - is as strict and plain as an attic garret meant for servants. A double row of small bedrooms simply open on to a narrow, straight corridor, and that's all there is to it.







Expansiveness is emphasized, on the other hand, in the more public, social areas in the house. The living room is a handsome two-storey space sunken below the entry-level, and perfect for the entertaining the Zeidlers have always liked to do.

And instead of making the dining room an annex to the living room, in the usual way of modern dwellings, Mr. Zeidler installed the dinner table on a high mezzanine that overlooks the living room and is approached by a conspicuous staircase. This vertical separation means that, rather than merely getting up and casually walking from one room into another on the same level, family members and guests must ceremonially ascend to the dining area, which is perched over the place where they enjoy their aperitifs. Though this living-dining arrangement is out of sync with ordinary modern living (and ordinary modern residential architecture), I like its air of subtle, serious theatricality.

In fact, there is much to admire about this house: the sensitivity with which it addresses its superb ravine setting, its overall sense of drama and occasion, the way it seems to know its importance as an advertisement for the architect's skill and art. We can hope the dwelling's new owners appreciate the subdued but energetic modernism that makes this house so attractive.

 

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