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In east Toronto, an infill home that sets an example

From the Jazz Age through the Swing Era of the last century, Toronto's East York neighbourhood offered many people on working-class salaries a crack at first-ever home ownership.

The small, cheap bungalows on long and narrow lots – typical housing types in this district – surely served a few generations well. But as these dwellings approach the end of their life-spans, and tear-downs become common, homeowners face an interesting question: Can a detached house that is ample, bright and modern be built on East York's unusually skinny residential properties?

Earlier this month, I described a recently completed project, called Linear House, which effectively shows that it can indeed be done. Today, I'm reporting on another success in the same part of town.

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Reza Aliabadi and Lailee Soleimani, members of the architectural team that designed this 1,600-square-foot residence for a professional couple, call it Totem House. The name refers to the element around which the interior space is organized: a massive, double-height square column irregularly incised with numerous niches, each holding a small object of art.

The owners, as it happens, are passionate about travelling far abroad, and they like to collect little sculptures crafted in the places they visit. But instead of displaying their treasures as most people do – on bookshelves or mantles, or in glass-fronted cabinets – they decided to make the collection the focus of a whole house.

All of Totem House's interior sight-lines lead to the pillar. The architects have further emphasized this vertical axis by running the flight of broad floating steps around it and up to the skylight that illuminates the art and the staircase together. In Totem House, as on the Royal Ontario Museum extension's Stair of Wonders – one of most attractive places in that widely disliked project – each step up or down brings another artifact to eye-level.

But the display is only one sign among many that the dialogue between clients and architects was careful and fruitful – as it can be (and sometimes isn't) when a person orders up a custom house. Such care always shows.

In houses originally put up for anyone and everyone (such as the elderly houses most downtown Torontonians live in), the upstairs bathroom, for example, has often been left small and inconspicuous by the builders, as though worthy only of obscurity.

For the clients of Mr. Aliabadi and Ms. Soleimani, on the other hand, bathing was clearly an important activity, and the architects designed the bathroom facilities to be accordingly imposing. The free-standing tub is provided with views into treetops in two directions, and the spacious shower, walled in clear glass on three sides, stands just off the comparatively small bedroom area. In a reversal of the more usual order of things, in fact, the luxurious bathroom leaves little room for the bed, suggesting that, for this couple, sleeping is less crucial to well-being than the pleasures of soaking and showering.

In another move that appears to express the opinions of the clients firmly, the designers have made the building face the street with a stern look. Above the car port rises a bold escarpment of black brick, penetrated by a single slim window. The only indications that there is a house behind this solid wall are a couple of tall, narrow openings in volumes that are set back, off to one side. The attitude of the modernistic façade toward the neighbourhood and the city is aloof, cool and even a little arch.

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Could the architects have made it more polite to the humble residential fabric round about? Of course they could have – but only by compromising the building's frank determination to be what it is: a wholly fresh, contemporary statement. Any kind of "contextualism" would have been beside the point in any case, since the context is stale – mediocre. Even East York's pleasant, characteristic rhythm of very modest, single-storey bungalow fronts is not strong enough here to justify a nod in its direction. Totem House stands out, as it should, and it offers a bracing precedent for the ongoing revival of its tired streetscape.

It's worth noting that the creation of this fine, small model did not require a vast cash outlay (at least when compared to the price of other housing in downtown Toronto these days.) The total cost of the project, including purchase of the land, demolition of the existing bungalow the architects' fees and the new construction, was just $775,000, the owners said.

For that amount, the couple got a comfortable, new, made-to-order, detached home close to the centre of town, with parking and a large, landscaped rear garden. But they also got a work of artistic imagination that embodies its occupants' likes and dislikes in clean, clear architectural language, as any new house that aspires to being a home should do.

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