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Here’s a home that clasps the Nova Scotia shore in a rocky embrace

Mr. Gorlin recalls his first impression of the Ketch Harbour site: ‘The landscape was sublime and awesome … a 10 on the Richter scale.’

Chris Dickson

Alexander Gorlin describes it as a primal site – all granite rocks and wild, crashing waves of the North Atlantic. It is what the Manhattan architect first saw several years ago, viewing it from a helicopter with his American client.

Inspired immediately by the starkness of the Nova Scotian scenery, Mr. Gorlin knew exactly what he wanted to build there: "The landscape was sublime and awesome … a 10 on the Richter scale," he said in a recent interview. "Nevertheless, the scale of the site could be easily overwhelmed by a large monolithic house, so I decided to divide it up into pavilions to fit into the landscape of boulders and mini-ponds on the granite shelf."

The result is a stunning 6,000-square-foot waterfront home near Ketch Harbour, a picturesque seaside community just 25 minutes from Halifax and about 40 minutes from the airport. The house is a series of concrete and glass pavilions that soar above the rocks; their curved roofs are both practical and dramatic. They repel the water from the ocean storms as Mr. Gorlin pays homage to the fluttering sails of ships, new and old.

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He explains the curtain of glass that fronts each of the pavilions is designed to "frame the view of the different aspects of the site" – the horizon of the ocean, the container ships along the Halifax shipping lanes, the summer parade of yachts destined for Chester on the province's South Shore, a historic lighthouse and a Second World War bunker once used to spot enemy ships.

Inside, the three bedroom and four-and-a-half bathroom home features minimal furnishings and a colour palette of whites and greys (with a few splashes of colour) that work in harmony with the landscape. The floors are Bulgarian limestone, which was shipped first to Italy for processing. The drawers in the all-white kitchen are equipped with individual motors so that they slide open effortlessly with just one touch. Although there is air-conditioning throughout, the great rooms are equipped with industrial-looking and energy efficient "big ass fans."

But as stark as is the landscape around it, so are the memories for its owner, an international tax attorney from Georgia. Sadly, he has never been able to enjoy it – two years before its completion his wife died suddenly.

"I need to put that behind me," says the owner, who asked that his name not be used, explaining why it is now up for sale. At $6.7-million, it is the most expensive listing in Nova Scotia and is featured prominently in the February issue of Architectural Digest.

The couple, who have a daughter, had planned this as their retirement home. For them, it had been a shared adventure and a labour of love.

Well before they found the land, however, they found Mr. Gorlin. "We were into simplicity and … a modern design that emphasized the property and not so much the ornamentation of a house," says the owner.

Mr. Gorlin's portfolio is vast and varied – from office buildings to apartments to private homes and affordable housing. He trained with renowned architect I.M. Pei, who designed the Louvre Pyramid. He was inspired early on by the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright – "For his lessons in how to build in harmony with nature," he says. Louis Kahn, another American architect, provides inspiration, he says, "for his honest use of materials and how they join together."

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Looking to escape the cloying humidity of Georgia spring and summers, the couple began thinking about buying along the coast of Maine coast, imagining cool ocean breezes. A friend, however, suggested Canada and its eastern coast, where they could buy acres of coastline for the cost of an acre in Maine.

Research brought them to Ketch Harbour where they purchased 40 acres of land, including 1,800 feet of ocean front, for $1.2-million. The property is bordered by 1,400 acres of Crown land. Privacy is what the owners were searching for – but not complete isolation.

For the architect, this was his first commission in Canada – and a great experience. (He says he even ended up making good friends with a Ketch Harbour family, who lent him their boat to view the site. "I love Canada," says Mr. Gorlin.) He provided a number of different plans to the owners and to his surprise, he said, they went with the "most daring of the plans." Over five years – not much work could be done in the winter, given the elements – the home took shape.

"The challenging climate of the site with its sea spray and wild changes in temperature demanded a bold approach to construction," explained Mr. Gorlin, who had wanted to use the rock from the site to build the home, but that proved too expensive. So they simplified, choosing concrete, a special glass window system that was tested for its resilience and roofs with a zinc covering.

Mr. Gorlin makes special mention of local builder Andrew Watts, who has previously built on the ocean.

"By framing the views in multiple directions with concrete piers and high vaults it's like a kaleidoscope of ocean, sky and rock," Mr. Gorlin said. "I was there recently and the full moon rose over the ocean, reflected not only in the tidal pools but refracted the glass walls of the house. It was unbelievable how the architecture multiplied the effect of earth, sea and sky, a perfect balance of nature and geometry and harmony with each other."

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