The streetscapes of Toronto’s upmarket Forest Hill neighbourhood are staid, poshly ordinary and a bit on the dull side, which, it appears, are the things that residents like about them. You don’t expect to find much evidence of fresh architectural thinking among the mock-Tudor and faux-Georgian homes of the district. It simply wouldn’t be tolerated.
Or so I thought until a mild afternoon late last year, when an errand brought me into the attractive cluster of middle-brow shops and restaurants known locally as Forest Hill Village. I parked my car on little Relmar Road, at the edge of the commercial settlement, and was about to head out on my errand when something caught my eye.
It was a pair of tall, flat-topped semi-detached houses that did not look like the rest of Forest Hill. Instead of turning a politely dark, retiring, fustily historicist front toward the sidewalk, for instance, the small modernist complex faced the city boldly, and made no apology for being high-spirited and lyrical in humdrum company. The dramatically sculpted façade’s broad abstract planes of light stone and blackened brick seemed to crack apart and slide over and under each other, creating strong visual rhythm reminiscent of cool, smooth modern jazz. To switch the image: If there could be a Cubist façade treatment, this was it.
I was impressed by the animated exterior I saw on that day of errand-running, but I wanted to know more about these striking houses on Relmar Road. Here are some things I learned.
These are the first completely original, custom-designed dwellings by the young Toronto architect Luc Bouliane, a native of Northern Ontario, graduate of the University of Waterloo’s celebrated architecture program, and a veteran (before going out on his own) of Teeple Architects. Mr. Bouliane’s designs were executed for a local couple – empty-nesters, businessfolk and long-distance walkers – who wanted a house they could grow old in, and an attached home for their son. As things turned out, the son decided not to live in his part, which has recently been on the market for around $2.8-million.
During a recent visit with the designer in the couple’s 2,825 square-foot, three-level house, I found that Mr. Bouliane has fashioned an interior that is more conventional than the outside, but is no less intelligent and delightful. The emphasis here in on simplicity of spatial flow, and on making sure that every corner of the house is open to the light of sky and sun. The living-room ensemble, for example, is at the bottom of a great well of space, framed by a wall of triple-paned glass opening toward the terrace at the rear. An array of operable skylights above the broad stairwell illuminates the inside of the structure, and windows are numerous, if mostly small.
Because the couple plan to spend the rest of their days in the house, considerable attention has been paid to ease of access and other environmental matters important to people who are aging. An elevator, almost invisibly knitted into the fabric, runs between the 1,235 square-foot basement and each of the three upper storeys. (The rooftop can be reached via a hatch, though doing so would involve climbing a ladder.) Bathrooms are spacious and ergonomic. The large finished basement, which has nine foot ceilings, could be easily converted into a comfortable apartment for a care-giver, should the need arise.
What makes this Forest Hill dwelling especially memorable, however, is the close, subtle attention Mr. Bouliane has paid to details, and to their orchestration into a poetic whole. Everywhere one looks, there are quiet surprises. The pale (but not quite white) limestone wall that lines one side of the stairwell and living room is textured with low stone projections meant to catch the sunshine falling from the skylights high overhead. In the kitchen area, the massive Caesarstone island and a low built-in wooden cabinet angle away from the main route through this space, like riverside rock-faces eroded by the current.
In fact, the architect has frequently introduced non-right angles to places in the layout, millwork and passageways of this house where a less exacting (or less well-resourced) designer would have made do with a squared-off edge, and called it a day.
But Mr. Bouliane is an exacting designer, and every door-frame, bathroom appointment and finish in the project reveals an uncommonly inventive, thoughtful mind at work. It will be interesting to see where life and art take this talented new architect, whose Relmar Road houses bring Forest Hill’s dowdy streetscapes a much-needed lift.