For two generations, the backyards of Toronto's west side have shown cultural shifts in concrete. First, many Italian and Portuguese immigrants poured concrete courtyards, Mediterranean-style, and lined them with grape arbours and vegetable planters. And then, since the 1980s, gentrifying young families have torn it all back up again to plant on fresh ground.
But what if that was a mistake? Architects Tom Bessai and Maria Denegri suggest that the back-to-the-garden set may have gone too far. "The way these lots are used, from the mid-20th century on, is interesting," says Mr. Bessai. "Rather than just a garden for sitting, or ornament, there are a lot of functions assigned to a small space. If you put it back with a few changes, it works well."
The couple, of Denegri Bessai Studio, have successfully tested this idea with the yard of their friend and neighbour David Wellington. He recruited Mr. Bessai and Ms. Denegri, who live right behind him, to replace his crumbling garage. He got a new garage, a beautiful one, but also a total remake of his south-facing yard that put a hard edge back on it.
At the south end of Mr. Wellington's property is a new garage. It goes across the 19 foot width of the yard, and from the lane it looks typical, with concrete block structure and some handsome cedar siding. But Denegri Bessai designed the inside with clean details and custom cabinets made of Douglas fir plywood instead of the usual mess of shelving. And they added a second garage door – this one with panes of glass – to open into the yard. "The garage is a filter between alley and yard, and also a room within itself," Mr. Bessai says.
The custom-designed door is part of a clean composition of cedar siding, concrete block and wood painted a sober charcoal. From his back door, Mr. Wellington – a TV producer who often works at his kitchen counter – can look across his backyard and beyond. "In the summer, I put both doors up and pull out the car, and I can watch the kids all the way out to the alley," he says. That's handy when his son Henry, is playing ball hockey with Mr. Bessai's son Lucas. The laneway that links their houses, Mr. Wellington says, "is the hotspot of the neighbourhood."
The new backyard surface brings that activity right inside on a continuous surface that wraps around the deck and the side of the house.
Mr. Bessai and Ms. Denegri, both professors at the University of Toronto's architecture school, are drawing on their experience in other cities to create such novel designs. The married couple have worked and studied together in Vancouver, Barcelona and Los Angeles, and to them, the courtyard is an idea worth testing on many of Toronto's small lots.
Not everybody would be ready to go with it and tear up their lawn, but Mr. Wellington – a close friend who is continuing to work with them on a full renovation to his house – wasn't hard to persuade. "I bought in," he says of the design concept. "In these Victorian houses, the yard's not big enough, and what's the point in keeping it? It's a little piece of grass that doesn't get enough sun and doesn't look that good."
Its replacement is beautiful. The details of the new courtyard surface are carefully wrought. It is paved with inexpensive Unilock paving stones, in squares and rectangles, laid in an irregular pattern. Their scale makes the space feel large and their grey colour harmonizes with the sober palette of the garage. They also make way for gardens along each side – no tomatoes here, but about 20 varieties of shrubs and three Japanese maples. In high summer, "it's completely wrapped in flora; there's grass that wraps down onto the stones," Mr. Wellington says. "It actually feels greener than it did before."
And what are the pavers made of? Concrete.
Still this is clearly the backyard of a TV producer and not a bricklayer. A beautifully proportioned cedar deck stretches the full width of the house. Unusually wide guards cradle your hands, and a custom-made railing in swooping steel guides you from the house quickly down onto the ground.
With a nice dining set, Mr. Wellington and his son can sit there for dinner; when it's time for hockey, and in the winter months, it's a clean slate. "It's a real space, and it gets used constantly," he says.
Mr. Bessai points out the small of list materials: plywood, cedar, glass, steel. There's nothing luxurious here, but they are arranged in clear, consistent compositions, built beautifully by contractor Craig Shields. The design provides relief from the visual chaos of this typically cluttered, treed and overgrown block. Mr. Bessai is quick to pay tribute to the working-class builders and homeowners who came before him and arrived at similar ideas. "As architects and academics, we have a different aesthetic," he says. "But this is really about solving a basic Toronto problem."