Skip to main content

When I visit serious works of architecture, the owners have rarely taken a vow of poverty. But every rule has an exception. The Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation of Roman Catholic nuns in Toronto, have commissioned a new home for themselves that reaches great aesthetic heights.
Bob Gundu/Shim-Sutcliffe Architects

I went there recently for a tour, after the building, designed by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, won a Governor-General’s Medal for Architecture. It is located in a dowdy corner of what used to be called East York. As you approach through a landscape of mid-century brick bungalows and strip plazas, you see an undulating monolith – a long, four-storey building that snakes in and out from the street, its façade lined by vertical bars of cool green aluminum and rough, orange Cor-Ten steel. It adjoins an 1885 Queen Anne-style house, resplendent in its restored red brick.

This is home to the sisters, designed to provide long-term and hospital care for their aging membership. Beyond the building lies the steep slope of the Don Valley. Sister Thérèse Meunier, the congregation’s leader, told me that the symbolism of being between the city and nature appeals to the sisters, who have active community ministries.
Bob Gundu/Shim-Sutcliffe Architects

The 90,000-square-foot project, which replaced a nursing home on the site, is designed with a broad program of green technologies and strategies, including geothermal heating and cooling, solar electricity and water-heating, and rainwater retention.

As the sisters were preparing to leave their larger property a few kilometres north, whose sale helped pay for their new residence, they worked with Shim-Sutcliffe to develop a set of principles that included “simplicity, beauty and wise use of materials and spaces,” and accommodations that would be “welcoming, accessible, ecologically sustainable, designed in harmony with nature, and with flexibility and potential for diverse use now and into the future.”

Those are very good ideas on which to build.

And for the architects, this is a major work. Howard Sutcliffe and Brigitte Shim are among Canada’s greatest architects, but they retain a mystique. Through 20 years, their work, based in Toronto, has been mostly private: houses and small buildings, which (for those who get to visit them) deliver carefully modulated spaces and finely wrought details. In recent years they’ve gone public, to a degree. In recent years they’ve gone public, to a degree. Integral House (2009), a home and private concert hall for mathematician James Stewart, saw them moving to a larger scale while designing everything down to the curving, cast-bronze doorknobs.

That house is also set on the Don Valley; the Sisters’ residence is on the opposite side, not far away. Both buildings imply a dialogue between the natural and the urban through handcraft; make use of wood and stone; and feature organic, curving forms. “Here, you’re always aware of nature, and you’re always very much aware of the city.” Shim explains. “ On one side it’s the everyday city, with the O’Connor bus going by, and on the other side the ravine. I think that was very important to the sisters.”
Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail

The architecture expresses this ideal in a clearly readable way. The ground level of the building is largely transparent; you can look, from the street, past the gardens, over a reflecting pool and straight through to the trees. The three floors above mostly hold the sisters’ rooms, which are spare and utilitarian. On the outside, the rear of the building (largely clad in brick, for a calmer effect) has an ipe-wood terrace that goes to the edge of the slope.

The building’s S-shaped plan evokes the curves of the ravine. This is a trick borrowed from the great modernist Alvar Aalto. As Aalto did with the students’ rooms at the Baker Dormitory at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., Shim-Sutcliffe have used single-loaded corridors: When you walk down the hallway to a sister’s quarters, there are rooms on one side and windows on the other, facing the city. (Internal windows also let the nuns peek out into the hall.)

As Meunier explains, “That’s really quite nice for the sisters who are in wheelchairs and who aren’t able to go outside. When they go out in the hall, they can see everything, and they’re close to what’s going on.’”

The salutary effects of sunlight and community, Meunier suggests, have been good for the health of those who live here. This – a premise being belatedly adopted by North American hospitals – is certainly true. But the building’s real poetry is at the scale of the human body and the hand. Shim-Sutcliffe (with project architect James Chavel) brought their customary level of refinement to the woodwork, steel, glass and concrete throughout.

Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail

That is particularly true of the chapel. Located at the heart of the building, it evokes the concert hall in the Integral House across the valley – and it is where, each day, the sisters pray individually and also gather as a group. They are lucky to have this place to do it. The two-storey volume centres on an altar backed by a translucent bubble of colourless glass – a glazed wall that protrudes outward, bringing in light and views from the forest and valley beyond. To the left and right, more glass is mediated by slender, curved fins of white oak. That rich material also provides a vestment for the walls and a balcony above, where it’s joined by custom-designed copper pendants.

This is one of the most beautiful sacred spaces in Canada. But at first, Meunier says, many in the congregation weren’t sure about the design language – as opposed to the chapel in their previous building, which was “more churchy-churchy.” After the move, “There were mixed feelings about this place – ‘There are no stained-glass windows!’ – but I think on the whole they liked it.”
Bob Gundu/Shim-Sutcliffe Architects

That ambivalence is telling, and it’s reflected in the building’s modest church-basement furniture. The nuns did not want to build themselves a palace; but they have built a space that will serve the community, and improve people’s lives well into the future.

“There is an awareness among the sisters that it’s going to survive them,” says facilities administrator Amanda Garrett, who works with the order. It will.

Follow  on Twitter: @alexbozikovic