Apart from those who fashioned the deluxe neighbourhoods of Rosedale and the Annex, the bewhiskered Victorian developers of residential districts in Toronto’s old downtown thought small.
The parks they let the city insert into their housing schemes were too little and too few in number. As well, the dwellings they put up for the largely working-class clientele were often narrow and dark, and the domestic space was usually diced up finely into cramped rooms. Torontonians who move into districts south of suburbia nowadays must frequently cope with seriously outdated 19th-century ideas about shelter.
Such was the problem presented to a young couple by the two-storey Victorian Gothic row house they bought on Brock Avenue, on downtown’s west side. The structure was only 15 feet wide, and crowded and gloomy inside.
To find out what, if anything, could be done to transform this skinny house into a comfortable, contemporary home for themselves and their child, the owners turned to Toronto’s Denegri Bessai Studio, a firm with considerable experience in residential renovation. The verdict of architects Maria Denegri and Tom Bessai – surely, the only recommendation that made sense under the circumstances – was drastic overhaul. The clients agreed and the re-creation of the difficult row house began.
Now that the $420,000 work is done, the place is still just 15 feet wide, though the sense of the space is far more open, fluid and relaxed than it was. Ms. Denegri and Mr. Bessai achieved these effects by stripping out unnecessary walls and partitions, designing a kitchen that is as trim and efficient as possible, and unifying the downstairs areas with walnut millwork and with tough, attractive flooring material that resembles polished concrete.
The add-on of a two-level extension at the rear pushes the building seven feet closer to the garage and laneway. The greatest impact of this addition is felt on the upper storey, where the extra territory enables the bedrooms – formerly “awful, super-small,” Ms. Denegri said – to be more ample and amenable. The door to the middle bedroom, typically the murkiest one of all in antique houses, has been replaced by a large opening into the hallway, which now feels less constricted than it did. Downstairs, the door at the back of the kitchen opens into a small outdoor room bounded on one side by the garage, with its flat roof covered by a lawn of living green stuff.
This sweeping, stem-to-stern renovation was done right. It was crafted according to a scheme worked out by the clients with architects who know their science and their art and the oddities of the municipal building code. It was powered by a budget suitable for the task at hand. (Outfitting a 150-year-old Toronto house to accommodate a contemporary lifestyle is probably never going to be cheap.)
But according to Ms. Denegri and Mr. Bessai, every renewal, however modest in scale, is rooted in common needs and desires.
“When people contact an architect, they are looking at you to revamp their lives,” Ms. Denegri told me. “At the end of the day, most people are interested in being free of every constraint. They want help unpacking their lives.”
Very often, the prospective clients who seek help feel, as Mr. Bessai put it, “like prisoners in their own space.” They are tired of all the clutter they have accumulated, they also sense that something is wrong with the partitioning and spatial flow of the house or apartment they live in – but their discontent doesn’t translate into a strategy of what to do about any of it.
People in such straits are often tempted to get rid of everything, to demolish all the walls that aren’t holding the house up, to cover the walls that are left with dead white paint and leave them starkly bare.
“Open space, white walls can seem like cleansing,” Ms. Denegri said. “But the challenge to an architect is to find meaning in open space – to create a story or narrative about how one moves through the space.” Doing so is sometimes a matter of “inserting subtle devices,” such as the concrete-patterned floor covering and warm wood surfaces that successfully bring together the ground-floor zones of the Brock Avenue house. It always takes imagination of the sort Denegri Bessai Studio have brought to this thoughtful west-side project.