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All too often, civic leaders, cultural mandarins and speechifying architects fuel the illusion that a cultural renaissance belongs to them and those lucky enough to support their vision. It's become commonplace in a city such as Toronto to assert that the engine of culture belongs to blockbuster festivals or major public galleries and museums.

But the zeitgeist of any robust, multidimensional city cannot be measured strictly by what's being built and flaunted on elite street. For another take on a city's temperature, go to the places in between, including the hidden back lane, where architecture ventures into the wild.

The project at 40R Shaftesbury Avenue by Superkül Inc./Architect doesn't traffic in conventional ideas of house or home. In fact, you may be inclined to appreciate 40R, first, as a billboard advertising the potential for architecture to honour the past while signalling a brave new afterlife. Its exterior is quilted in a mesmerizing pattern of stainless-steel panels - the blackened ones from the original shack, the new panels already reddened by the rain - and you would not be alone if you mistook the building for a piece of minimal, rustic sculpture.

The building once operated as a blacksmith's shop, serving the North Toronto Railway Station in the early 1880s in what is now the Summerhill neighbourhood. Though it occupies its original footprint, the structure has been gutted and renovated to morph into an outpost on the last of the urban frontiers: the back lane.

The owners, artist Elena Soni and her husband, psychiatrist Jorge Soni, purchased the laneway property in 2006 to convert it into a single-family home from a sculptor's workshop and apartment. (The building has also served as a taxi depot, a hotel storage unit, and, from 1910 to 1935, a horse shed.) The funky shack had become a beloved icon in the neighbourhood, as much for its dilapidated condition as for its ability to endure 120 years of reinvention. And, no matter who or how the building was occupied, the steel panels have held on.

The small building sits hard on the property line on three sides. An extra 7.2 metres in building height was allowed by the city, so that part of what's become critical for contemporary living has been floated on top of the historic space: a rooftop featuring a courtyard private enough for sunbathing and, next to it, a green roof. That verdant intervention uses a boxed sedum system by LifeRoof, a product developed by the Michigan company responsible for the monumental green roof at the Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Facility.

With the extra height, the architects determined that two light shafts, each measuring nearly a metre wide and two storeys high, would bring much-needed natural light to an otherwise bleak interior on the second floor. Given that the building measures only about 1,000 square feet, the skylights take up roughly 15 per cent of the interior space. Sacrificing livable space - now that's a serious concession.

Through a horizontal ribbon window, the master bedroom looks into the light shaft. That means light floods the space, but it also means hopping over the bed to access the tiny washroom. The kitchen, too, is a tiny, compact affair, as is the living room. Margaret Graham, principal of Superkül with her husband, Andre D'Elia, likens the design to a puzzle of interconnected jigsaw pieces. It's also, she says, configured to be as tight as a ship. The spaces, though modest in scale, are enlivened by the grace of the light shaft, and will surely prove to be magical to occupy, especially at night.

The city's zoning requirement for non-combustible cladding typically has people scrambling for stucco, the hygienic cover-up favoured by downtowners as well as suburbanites. Thankfully, there are fresh options being tested by talented young architects. On the north and east elevations of 40R, the building is clad with dark, chalky walls of cedar and, along the lower levels, marine grade plywood; the wood is finished in falun paint, a powdered substance relatively new to Toronto, whose pigment comes from a Swedish copper mine. To make the paint, the powder is mixed with water, linseed oil and a touch of liquid soap.

All of this points to new ways to occupy a small, ecologically sound footprint in the middle of the city. Superkül belongs to a set of emerging young studios in Canada interested not so much in passing judgment on what's gone before but in absorbing history without genuflecting to it. Sustainability needn't be highly visible, as in years past. Salvaging material from an existing structure has become the new norm, as are ideas of air flow, radiant floor heating and storm-water collection to irrigate the rooftop garden. As well, 40R sits within a crowded urban square defined not by fountains or flora, as in an Italian piazza, but by a motley assembly of brick garages and postmodern houses pushed together in a curious, slightly wild conversation.

How much of a cultural renaissance is Toronto enjoying these days? That kind of question can only be answered long after the museums close their doors at night - when people gather to watch a smithy's shop being reinvented all over again, a year ago having assembled on the patch of intersecting back lanes surrounding 40R to enjoy light projections, a poetry reading and a soft-noise orchestra. The house had its steel panels stripped for restoration back then, and it was possible to see the light glowing from behind the wood frame. It had an aura of its own. A city resonates when nearly invisible gestures are made, and architects and clients work together to contribute a gift that is not grand or self-important. And it's free for the taking.

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