Mike Lazaridis gazes at the deep, blue waters of Lake Huron, his right arm pointing toward the thin, grey horizon. The vast lake reminds him of the ocean. On nights when the moon is big and the wind is still, the water shimmers. There is nothing like it, the Research in Motion founder says. The view, no matter the time or weather, is always wondrous.
“You look at this and it’s constantly changing. You can pull inspiration from the darkest day,” he notes from inside a large, glass box that will one day be his office, perched 40 metres above the shoreline. “It gives you a sense that anything is possible.”
Rumours about the massive 26,000-square-foot house Mr. Lazaridis is building along the shores of Lake Huron have swirled for several years in this pocket of Southern Ontario and in Canadian architectural circles. There’s been chatter about the escalating cost and about a helicopter pad, a private art gallery and a movie theatre with a control room inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The latter three, all untrue.
In reality, the house will be much more than a second home, however grand, for one of the country’s top tech innovators and one of its wealthiest men. It will be an exclusive retreat for the world’s leading scientific and political minds, an awe-inspiring space where they can talk, exchange ideas and dream big. A place for the Stephen Hawkings of the world, as the building’s architect puts it.
“My hope is that when they come here, they’ll see all the good and be inspired by it,” Mr. Lazaridis says during a first-ever media tour of his project earlier this week. “[I want]to inspire the groups to think and think big and be bold. That’s something that has worked for me for decades and I can’t see it stopping. I’m not done yet.”
In a way, this secluded house is part of Mr. Lazaridis’s next act after he and Jim Balsillie stepped down from their co-CEO posts at RIM nearly two weeks ago. The pioneering Waterloo-based telecommunications company once had a stranglehold on the smartphone market. But with slumping stock prices and eroding market share in the United States, investors were pushing for a management shakeup.
It’s been a long while since Mr. Lazaridis has visited his Lake Huron project. Construction began in August, 2006, and has taken longer than expected, in part because he’s been too busy to offer input.
He and his wife, Ophelia Tong, bought the 51-hectare property in 2003, picking it up for a bargain, about $800,000. The land had been slated for a subdivision dubbed Amber Sands, but nothing was built except for the model home – a 1,400-square-foot clapboard bungalow that became the family’s cottage.
The idea of constructing a retreat to share with the world’s top thinkers developed over time, as the Lazaridis family fell in love with the lake and the agrarian landscape. They wanted to build something bold and Canadian. It had to showcase the best of Canada, from its moonlit lakes to its architecture and engineering.
“The thing is, I’ve always been grateful to this country because it accepted my parents,” says Mr. Lazaridis, 50, whose Greek parents moved to Canada when he was a young boy to flee Christian persecution in Turkey. “We came here with a few suitcases and very little money. [Canada]gave them an opportunity to rebuild their lives. It educated me and my sister.
“And I’ve always had this gratefulness in me to give back, and that’s what I have been doing.”
The couple opened the design contest only to Canadian firms. Toronto-based Hariri Pontarini Architects won the competition with an innovative modern concept based on three key materials: stone, bronze and glass, most of which was extracted or manufactured in the region. The labour is local, too.
Solaris, or “the RIM house,” as it’s more commonly known in the area, was the talk of the region when it first got going. Curious locals navigated boats and planes to catch a glimpse. Others scrambled down to the beach and walked the long stretch to the shoreline below the house. There are several million-dollar cottages on the 52-kilometre stretch between Goderich and Kincardine, but nothing like this.
At the Amberley General Store, where a group of men regularly gather for late-afternoon coffee, there are hopes Mr. Lazaridis will hold an open house when the project is done. Everybody wants a look inside, including the township’s reeve.
“There’s interest and excitement,” notes Kincardine realtor David Patterson. “However, there’s a lot of unknown, too, because of not being able to get in there.”
Rumours are rampant on the project’s cost. People have speculated it has climbed to the $100-million range from its original budget of $20-million. That’s not the case, but the actual price won’t be disclosed until the building is done. When it is, it will likely be one of the most expensive residential developments ever built in Canada.
But that’s not the point of the project, Mr. Lazaridis says.
“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to invest in something that pushes the limits of Canadian architecture, engineering, manufacturing,” he explains. “The fact that we were able to do this all with Canadian talent is a statement to the world.”
With a report from Alex Bozikovic
Find complete coverage of Research In Motion at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/research-in-motion/