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A mid-Toronto home that goes beyond franchise modernism

Not so long ago, the residential district around the Toronto intersection of Lawrence Avenue West and Avenue Road was populated by bungalows and modest semi-detached houses.

That pleasant post-war fabric has recently been swept away and replaced by a patchwork of bulging "traditional" dwellings, mostly mediocre and deadly dull.

It was into this unpromising urban landscape – at 478 Brookdale Ave., to be exact – that Toronto architect Lorne Rose was asked by a developer to set down a deluxe modernist residence.

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It's not the kind of thing Mr. Rose does, as a rule: His usual custom house is cast in some antique historical style or another – "French provincial," "English manor," and so on.

The 3,200-square-foot outcome on Brookdale – currently on the market for $2,749,000 – is not much more artistically original than his old-fashioned etudes. The streetside façade, for example, is an entirely tame, staid arrangement of light stucco, stacked Ontario limestone and dark grey porcelain tiling, as devoid of flair as anything up and down its dowdy street.

But while it falls short of the inspirations Mr. Rose claims for it – the residential works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Rudolph Schindler and other pioneering modernists – the two-storey design has a few interior features that raise it above the level of the routine, franchise modernism that's become all too common in Toronto.

One of these features is the graceful proportioning of the inside spaces.

Tall white walls elegantly frame the various locations in the open plan of the entry level – the living-room area (accented by a black partition, a polished dark grey marble fireplace and long mantle), the somewhat formal dining area, the quite informal family room off the kitchen.

Generally speaking, the ground-floor scheme has been tailored for a contemporary family accustomed to relaxed living, though a certain stateliness is available for those occasions when it's wanted.

This faint air of aloofness is reinforced by mindful contrasts and careful detailing both on the house's main level and on its four-bedroom upper storey.

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The recessed black base-boards, separated by reveals from the white surfaces above, lend the walls a sense of rootedness and solidity that painted panels of drywall often do not have.

Similarly, the austerely sculpted black door frames and the blackened aluminum edges of the windows give crisp definition to these openings.

They are more than just holes in the wall, in other words; they are clearly articulated voids that stand out architecturally, as doors and windows always should. The stairwell is another void that Mr. Rose has made striking and dramatic.

The staircase is composed of thick oak treads borne upward by a steel spine, all of it floating free of the wall.

The architect was clearly thinking hard when he developed this staircase, hollowed out the interior spatial flow, and crafted refined details such as the door jambs, the black baseboards and the lovely, unusual flooring made of porcelain panels.

When the time came for designing other aspects of the house, however – I'm thinking especially of the completely nondescript face the building turns to the street – his attention seems to have wandered off topic a bit.

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It's not hard to understand how this might have happened.

The house at 478 Brookdale, after all, has been created as a speculative venture, and, as such, it was done with no specific customer in mind.

There's nothing wrong with creating a house in this way, of course. Most Torontonians live in houses that were put up for nobody in particular and anyone in general.

But there's bound to be something missing about such residences, just because they are results of guess work about everything – the market, the planning priorities at city hall, the unknown client.

Inevitably absent is any evidence of the ongoing, complex, often fraught conversation that normally takes place between an architect and the people who intend to live in what the architect comes up with.

The best houses always bear the mark of involved, informed dialogue.

Despite its occasional refinements, however, the Brookdale house is altogether too bland and generic – more so, by the way, than Mr. Rose's forthrightly antiquarian family homes.

It would be interesting to see what this eclectic architect might do, if paired up with a thoughtful, demanding client who admired classic modernist design and who wouldn't settle for anything less than strong contemporary punch.

Mr. Rose has shown he can successfully recycle any old-fashioned style.

We hope to find out someday what he can do with the modern ones.

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