Viewed from the sidewalk, a typical house by Toronto architect Reza Aliabadi is as toned-down as a Bay Street business suit.
But go behind the trimly tailored façade, and you find the spatial variety that's the most interesting thing about the design. Interior levels rise and fall; space tightens a little here and there, then relaxes into an open flow. Mr. Aliabadi's art is not about manufacturing the versatile "universal space" cherished by the modernists. It's got more to do with making specific places for contemporary living.
Take Mr. Aliabadi's flat-roofed 5/6 House, located in the post-war Toronto suburb of North York. The exterior treatments – stucco cladding, aluminum siding and such – are very plain. Though less sentimental in shape and style than its traditional pitched-roof neighbours, and considerably larger – the usable area is about 5,000 square feet – the two-storey house sits respectfully among the older residences along the street.
In fashioning the interior, however, the architect has let his imagination run more freely.
The space allotted to the open-plan living and dining areas, for instance, is gathered at the centre of the building, well away from the sidewalk. The strong visual rhythm of white walls and dark trim gives this zone an air of calm formality and seriousness. The effect is reinforced by the lofty ceiling, about eleven feet off the floor.
The kitchen area, on the other hand, is more compressed. But on one side, the compacted space expands out over a wide void sliced out of the ground-floor level. This cavity is a mirror-image of the massive oblong volume (containing the master bedroom suite) that bears down into the lower territory from the second storey.
Going up from the level of the kitchen, dining and living precincts, a short flight of steps leads to the family room, which stands atop the garage and abuts the street. The atmosphere here is casual and lively instead of formal, public rather than private. Daylight floods into the room through large south-facing windows and an enormous skylight cut into the double-height ceiling. This place belongs wholly to the day and the sky and changing weathers, not the underground darkness to which family rooms and dens are too often consigned in more conventional housing schemes.
The architectural scenery changes again as the visitor descends through the void near the kitchen via the glass-faced staircase, its thick treads cantilevered from the wall, to the fully finished basement level. A long rectangular reflecting pool, fed by a waterfall, has been incised into the dark stone floor of the room where the staircase touches down. Quiet north light filters through the tall glass doors just inside a sunken patio at the rear, and a shaft of sunshine, striking through the first-floor void, occasionally brightens the retreat.
The contemplative stillness of this largely empty space, like the formality of the living room and the expansive cheerfulness of the family room, is the result of very deliberate architectural moves. Mr. Aliabadi has left little leeway in his design for personal touches. The thrusting volumes and gaping voids of the fabric insist that that outfitting and decoration be as rigorous as the design itself.
Not every homeowner, of course, will want to live in a place as carefully programmed and scripted as this one. That said, I think it would be hard to find a Canadian who would not be glad to dwell in a residence so full of light.
Toronto is a city, Mr. Aliabadi has written, "where severe weather conditions created houses with small openings." 5/6 House is the architect's most recent response to this familiar state of affairs, and his most striking one to date. It's not a glass box. Rather, the house is a system of broad openings, gaps and voids through which natural light shines into every corner. The name Mr. Aliabadi has given the project recalls how he worked to achieve this brightness: To make 5/6 House he first divided each floor into six parts, then subtracted one.
If this sounds like an abstract, schematic way to go about crafting an interior, the math doesn't show in the finished product. 5/6 House is poetry of a modern kind: resolved, serene and clean-lined, and completely free of unnecessary ornament and commotion. It expresses Mr. Aliabadi's flair for sculpting space into shapes with distinctive identities, like the sunny clearings one can find in a forest, or the intervals between old buildings that open the city's crowded floor to the sky.