Nothing says "modern!" quite like a glass box.
Surely, no other single-family housing type more punchily expresses the optimism about technology or the worship of sunlight, fresh air and openness that moved the best architectural modernists. And while the public at large is less fascinated by stand-alone glass-walled homes than it was 50 years ago, certain design-conscious people still want to live in them, and are prepared to hire designers with the flair and imagination needed to make streamlined, glassy modernist residences that work.
I know such dwellings are going up because, last week, I visited a remarkable new one perched above north Toronto's Cedarvale ravine.
It was crafted by Drew Mandel for young clients – a professional couple with two small boys and a handsome collection of contemporary abstract paintings and works on paper – who told the architect that nothing but a glass box would do. Mr. Mandel obliged, with striking results – though the 3,350-square-foot home he fashioned for these people is certainly not a simple, open-plan cube or brick-shaped block. Instead, in Mr. Mandel's apt words, the building is "a glass box that came north and grew up."
In the process of growing up, we find here, the box learned to tolerate opacity when necessary for privacy's sake. It became more formally complex than it had been around the middle of the last century, and much less narrow-minded about its geometry.
Instead of being tightly locked into a unified mass, for example, the various rectangular volumes of Mr. Mandel's house float loosely over their site. A dark, zinc-clad oblong containing the master bedroom suite thrusts out over the pool at the rear, as if taking flight from the cluster of rooms (the children's area) at the front of the second storey. Down below, instead of pulling away from each other, every space seems to have drifted alongside the next, coming lightly to rest around an interior wood-decked void (or courtyard, as Mr. Mandel prefers to call it) that is open to the sky.
If the house is a box that appears to be coming apart – with much grace and strong poetry, I should add – the building hasn't forgotten its most important legacy from the modernist past: transparency.
Step inside the front door, into the passageway lined by the mud room and a washroom, and almost immediately you see everything through tall, successive walls of glass: a small lounge, the courtyard at the centre of the house and the adjacent dining room, the living room and kitchen beyond, and finally, the pool outside and the densely forested edge of the ravine. This quietly dramatic rhythm of alternating interiors and exteriors, of rooms and voids – with each component partitioned off from the next only by enormous black-framed expanses of glass – is one of the most attractive features of this beautiful house.
In describing the form of the structure in this way, however, I may be making it seem blank and plain, like many other open-plan houses out there. It's not. To be sure, Mr. Mandel has built in the clean, clear spatial flow that modernism devised to liberate interiors from the wall-ridden layouts of Victorian houses. But with just a few subtle architectural moves, and without re-introducing the old system of opaque walls and doors, he has channelled and gathered this flow into distinctive places within the plan.
The living-room area, for instance, has a polished concrete floor, a ceiling that is over 11 feet high, and it is framed, on two opposite sides, by glass exterior walls. Without being in any way cold or harsh, this bright, exposed, hard-surfaced space is sociable, but also public. The mood changes as one walks into the kitchen. The dark ceiling drops – it's the underside of the master bedroom volume above – and this gesture sharpens and tightens the atmosphere in this zone.
Then step up into the wood-floored dining area, and the tenor changes once again – this time into something celebratory, generous and interestingly complicated. Muted, shadowed light glances through a glass wall into the room, while blue, bright illumination falls downward from a large skylight cut into the second-storey ceiling. (Here, and everywhere else, the owners' excellent abstract art underscores the unique character Mr. Mandel has inscribed on each space in this house.)
If I have any problem at all with the project, it has to do with something that's appealing about it: all that transparency. A house like this needs a lot more distance between its glass walls and the neighbours' windows.
But if you want to live most anywhere in downtown Toronto, you have to put up with a certain amount of crowding and jostling. If you're lucky, you will be putting up with it in a glass box that's as intelligent, deft and refined as this one by Drew Mandel.