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Architects and designers embrace compromise with the half-open house

Toronto architect Kyra Clarkson designed this interior with rooms that feel generous and are visually connected.

Steven Evans

Tear down that wall. This (to borrow a phrase) is the conventional wisdom in home design today. It is an argument familiar to anyone who's watched HGTV or browsed for a new house: An open interior is the hallmark of a "modern" house. It "works well for entertaining" and "makes the space flow."

Except when it doesn't. The fact is that when a house or apartment is entirely open, it can feel more like a gym than a home – even if it's a mid-sized subdivision house. This is why many thoughtful architects and designers have recently embraced a compromise, the half-open house. This is a sort of interior in which there aren't many full walls between rooms, but there are partial walls or dividers – enough to suggest separate spaces and provide privacy without returning to 19th-century convention.

The Toronto architect Drew Mandel is one. He is dedicated to building in the modernist vein and has done so successfully, but he's also become less ideological about what form his interiors take. "When we were younger in my office, our goal was to achieve a kind of pure space," he says. "Now, I think a more nuanced space makes for a more successful and more practical architecture. The aspiration to a glass box needs accommodation to how people live."

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The glass box: That is a strange ideal for a house, but it has been an influential one. Two houses completed in the 1940s established its Platonic ideal: Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Illinois and the Glass House, designed by American architect Philip Johnson for himself in Connecticut. The Glass House is the more extreme and the more famous: essentially a rectangular box of glass supported by eight piers of steel. Inside, only the bathroom is enclosed; living, eating and sleeping areas are one continuous zone, visually open to the countryside around it.

As a "house," it was a fiction – Johnson, wealthy and childless, lived there only on weekends, and it was part of a compound that grew to include 13 other buildings.

And yet its image had a powerful effect. The history is complicated, but the basic desires it expresses, of great expanses of glass open to the landscape and an open interior, are now a given for builders and Home Depot salespeople.

Mandel describes a recent project, his Cedarvale House in Toronto, in opposition to this: "It's as though the Glass House grew up," he says. At the Cedarvale House, Mandel carefully divided the interior into smaller pavilions and corner rooms, and cut a courtyard into the middle of the house. It is a complex and beautiful space, and it also makes life comfortable for the people who live there, a family of four.

In renovating older houses, the question is how to respond to a layout of rooms that already exists. Architect Kyra Clarkson did so creatively when she renovated a 1913 Toronto house for her cousin Helene Clarkson, her husband Andrew Livingston and their three children: Clarkson more or less recreated the rooms that had been removed by a previous owner. "In contrast to just blowing out all the walls in the house, I think Helene and Andrew wanted a sense of foyer where they could arrive and put away all of their things," Clarkson says.

She accomplished this with a new section of wall that hides part of the kitchen, and also a new storage cabinet which reaches from floor to ceiling; these outline an entry hall and corridor, while leaving large doorway openings that reach all the way from floor to ceiling, without mouldings or trim. A similar arrangement links the living and dining rooms – short sections of wall provide space to hang art and place furniture, leaving a broad space to pass through.

This interior is a hybrid; it suggests the Edwardian arrangement of rooms that was once here, but does so with rooms that feel generous and are visually connected. "You can never close off a space completely, but you can be in a space," Clarkson says. And this is crucial: "After all, there are five people living here."

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But what about entertaining? The open kitchen has become the single most powerful cliché in contemporary home design, despite the fact that most people (unlike TV hosts) usually cook with a generous helping of chaos. A recent Slate column wisely took issue with this idea. Clarkson's solution is clever: The house's new family room, built as an addition to the original building, is dropped down a couple of steps from the kitchen area, so guests are looking up at the hosts in the kitchen.

"It's wonderful," says Helene, who is a devoted cook. "You can talk, and you can see a person in the kitchen, but absolutely none of what they're doing with their hands." And yet that family room is still mostly open, and its tall glass doors bring in light and views of the backyard. Clarkson says the crucial point is a variety of spaces.

That is something that the young architect Omar Gandhi embraced in designing his own house in Halifax. He added a new family room to the back of the house, "a big, bright, happy room with a fireplace and television," he explains. "But at the opposite end of the house is a mid-century-modern style, plywood-clad room with textured lighting; it's a radio room, a reading room, a place where we could sit and listen to the CBC." That "radio room" is designed with soft, indirect light and acoustic dampening, and it's divided from the main hall of the house by a thick wall that incorporates shelving, cabinets and hidden ductwork.

The objective, says Gandhi, is a set of places that are not entirely separate. "It gets away from the homogeneity of open spaces, where everything is light and loud," he says. "I like thinking of a house as having a narrative of its own, and for that it needs a variety of types of spaces." And if that means that his family isn't always gathered around a kitchen island, this is just fine.

"Even though we might be in different spaces," he says, "we can all be really close together."

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