Of the several virtues that have characterized modernist single-family residential design over its first century of development, modesty is one of the most attractive. You can set down a flat-roofed, geometrically simplified house in almost any urban streetscape laid out since Victorian times, and be sure that it won't make a fuss about itself. (Faux-historical monster homes, on the other hand, often kick up a lot of distracting visual racket.) And a modern dwelling is just the ticket when what's wanted is unshowy infill housing with ample, fluid interior space, maximum light and welcoming, up-beat attitude.
Last week, I visited a modern infill residence in Toronto's Cedarvale district that has all these desirable properties on the inside, and, on the outside, the right kind of neighbourly modesty – if perhaps a little too much of it.
Designed by John Shnier, founding partner in the local firm of Kohn Shnier Architects, for a professional couple enjoying an active retirement, the 3,000-square-foot house turns a severe face toward its street of traditional family homes. The boxy composition of this two-storey façade is dominated by the rigid symmetry of its upper portion, and its overall sombre tone is set by the ash-black brick that frames the horizontal windows and the entrance. The idea here, Mr. Shnier told me, was to encourage the building to "retire from the street"– though what he has done seems less like graceful backing off than a quick, sharp withdrawal, and the front façade appears somewhat stark and abrupt for that reason.
Inside the front door, however, a very different atmosphere prevails. The relaxed mood is generated, in part, by the simple palette of materials. The floors and cabinetry and other millwork throughout the building, downstairs and up, have been crafted from natural white oak, and the walls, too, are white. This light, warm scheme is quietly reinforced by the delicately grey-veined white marble Mr. Shnier has used in countertops, the bathrooms, and in the large, wide partition that stands between the kitchen and the living area. Relief from the general brightness is provided by black slate flooring laid in a pattern of contrasting sheens that creates a carpet-like effect underfoot.
But the most conspicuous and unusual accent is the red wall. The expanse of gleaming opaque glass covers the west side of the interior, rising alongside the stair to the second level, descending to the finished basement. This large, bold feature, and the various applications of only a few other sensuous materials, come together in a visual whole that is interesting, but never noisy, modern without being austere – that is lively without a sacrifice of serenity.
This liveliness, however, is not merely a matter of rhyming and contrasting tonalities. It is embodied in the bones of the house, the way it moves formally with its site, which slopes downward away from the street.
Mr. Shnier could have accommodated this incline by running the main floor straight back from the front door – the ordinary thing to do – and thereby making a lower storey that opened onto the back garden, pool, or whatever. Instead, he has let the floor sink with the landscape, and used the differing levels to fashion an engaging sequence of spatial experiences.
One enters the house at the top of this arrangement. The floor then drops a few steps to the level of the clearly demarcated dining area – with its wonderful glass and steel table – located at the front end of the house and the similarly well-defined kitchen. The dining area and the kitchen, then, occupy a mezzanine that is divided from the living area by an enormous counter draped in marble and by two more little flights of descending steps (one at each end of the counter).
The spacious living area is as exposed to the city as the dining area is intimate: A wall of floor-to-ceiling glass panels is all that separates the living and relaxing zone from the broad deck and pool beyond.
This gathering of space into site-specific places that are less than rooms, but more than spots on an blank grid, is not a reversal of the open-plan concept cherished by modernist architects in days of yore. It is, rather, an elaboration of this important idea, and an adaptation of it for contemporary architectural customers less concerned with abstract "space" than with place and place-making – with the properties of this or that place in a city, or in a landscape, or even in a residence.
I would like Mr. Shnier's Cedarvale house better if its exterior were not quite so gruff. But its innards are definitely sound.