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A modern cottage that exudes ‘that inside-of-a-canoe warmth’

Clear Lake Cottage

Ben Rahn/A-Frame

There's a time-tested recipe for cottaging in Ontario. You head to the edge of a lake, splash around, sit on the dock, retire for the evening as the wind runs through the trees.

A new cottage near Parry Sound is custom-built for this kind of getaway, but it's a radically contemporary building – wrapped in black corrugated steel, its peak torqued into a trapezoid as if it was bent by the wind.

It is, unapologetically and clearly, new. But according to the owners, a Toronto couple with three children, the cottage on Clear Lake provides a calm, "cabiny" getaway, not in spite of its design, but because of it.

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"This is a family-oriented place, as all cottages are," one of the owners says. But when it was being planned, he says, "We didn't want to be in anybody's face. We wanted to settle into the land. We'd seen enough places that seemed like suburbia strapped to the side of the lake. We wanted something contemporary."

They hired Ted Watson of Toronto's MJM Architects to execute this vision, and the result – which recently won an award from the Ontario Association of Architects – is a modernist building that genuinely responds to the land, while speaking in a 21st-century language.

That is surprising in the context of Ontario's cottage country, where the standard building style has evolved from wood-and-stone cabins (following American fashions) to big, suburban-style houses dressed up in rustic suits.

But, as Mr. Watson points out, the modernist tradition makes perfect sense here: One of its great themes, from the 1920s to the present, has been connecting indoors and outdoors. "What makes modernism work so well is that you can have these vast openings that let you connect with the exterior," he says. "Having these large walls of glass, up there, makes a big difference."

Specifically, this house stretches out lengthwise along a hillside overlooking the lake. Its lakefront wall is a series of glass and screen panels, which are operable; when the clients want to, they can open up the doors and let the wind carry the scent of pine right through the place.

Inside, the list of rooms is typical: a kitchen, living-dining room and a master bedroom face the lake, while two more bedrooms, a bathroom and mudroom face the forest on the back side. An open loft provides spillover space for young visitors.

Yet within that standard program, the space is complex. The rooms are divided by three covered courtyards that jut into the building, roofed but open to the outside. "They create an ambiguity about being inside or outside; they're covered, so you can use them and be outdoors, but be sheltered," Mr. Watson says.

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And there is a vertical division that runs through the middle of the building, so the back bedrooms are a few steps higher than the lakeside rooms. The building literally follows the slope of the land. The views are carefully framed and the rooms are arranged with an eye to privacy, wind and the position of the sun through the day. It's also tightly insulated, and radiant floor heating makes it energy efficient.

The subtle design quality and sustainability features aren't obvious, but the materials and the formal language of the building do make it stand out.

From the outside it is a low, irregularly shaped trapezoid with triangular points on both ends. Mr. Watson jokingly compares it to a Stealth bomber, which is pretty apt. Decks on either end are made of clear cedar, but once you step into the building you are on a concrete floor. The walls around you and the vaulted ceiling above are wrapped in Douglas fir plywood; the central hallway is marked by a stripe of black-stained cedar and a fireplace made of black mild steel.

All this, according to the architect, makes it comfortable. "We really wanted to avoid making the building feel too precious, where you have to take your boots off," Mr. Watson says. "So it has a very robust exterior, and the concrete floors – which are heated, so they are literally warm, even if some people think concrete is figuratively cold."

At the same time, there are rich natural materials here. Some of the many windows are wrapped by fins of steel and Douglas fir, which control the views and sunlight coming in from outside; the lake views are set off by window frames of rich mahogany. The counters are made of Algonquin limestone. This gives the cottage "that inside-of-a-canoe warmth."

The owner enthusiastically agrees. He says the cottage compares well to the old one on the property, which dated to 1959 and was built by a family of Finnish descent – it was a "wreck," but cozy and reflective of the Scandinavian cabin tradition. "We've got tons of magazines and books about that Scandinavian cabin culture, and that appealed to us," he says.

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It's an interesting point, because the modest rural getaways of Scandinavia show a different cultural ancestor to this place. There, architects such as the Finn Alvar Aalto worked with local, utilitarian cabins and agricultural buildings and infused them with influences from the modernist movement, such as the open floor plan and new materials – such as plywood. In that region, so similar to Ontario in its climate, there's no cultural hurdle between nature and modernist design.

Mr. Watson also studied Scandinavian precedents including a book of Norwegian fishing lodges, which are wood, their outside surfaces finished with pine tar or charred to a black crisp. Black is today a fashionable colour among architects around the world; Mr. Watson, who with his colleagues at MJM, generally designs very good public buildings, used it as the main colour of the beautiful new Regent Park pool in Toronto. So this is a cottage that reflects contemporary aesthetic ideas and ideals about sustainability, while nodding to an ancient tradition.

Aaccording to the owner, when it's time to hang out with the family and friends, the novelty of the design never gets in the way. "To us it is so comfortable, so cozy," he says.

And the idea that concrete doesn't belong at the cottage? "We just don't see that. With everyone who has been there, the feedback we get is: You nailed it. It's a cabin but it's cool."

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