"I'm interested in architecture as lived experience rather than theory or a list of things," says architect Matthew Woodruff. Hence his unconventional stance that ocean views are overrated.
"They can be daunting and overwhelming," he argues. "I like working with sites where you have to find the moments of beauty - and every site has them."
A slice of clear blue sky, the gnarled torso of an old tree, the rustic woodshed next door - these are elements that Woodruff harnessed as compositional elements for the window views of the Courtyard House, his latest project on Mayne Island, "Those raw moments of beauty are becoming more and more important to me."
Woodruff's clients were his in-laws, James and Evelyn McIntyre. Retiring from medical careers in Toronto, where they still keep a house, the McIntyres chose this property near the island's ferry terminal for the opportunity to live next door to their daughter and her family half the year.
Before designing the Courthard House, Woodruff had garnered significant buzz by designing his own Mayne Island house as a primordial west-coast-modern dwelling - a cedar post-and-beamer with a rustic persona. Though sited literally next door from his own home, the Courtyard House projects a wildly different architectural personality, more refined and visually rigorous.
Both houses were designed while Woodruff was still a principal at Measured Architecture, the firm he co-founded with Clint Cuddington and left last year. Before that, he and Cuddington worked on major institutional projects at Bing Thom Architects. Like his former partner at Measured, he's now focusing on smaller residential projects. But he refuses to generate a certain branded "look."
The McIntyres came to Mayne Island to be near their daughter's family. But as lifelong urbanites, they didn't necessarily suit the woodsy west-coast paradigm that informs Woodruff's own home. Their house exhibits more architectural formality and refinement, and a generous use of polished concrete.
Instead of the usual tree-framed ocean, Woodruff has fashioned the windows to catch fragments of scenery that read as vignettes - for instance, three branches of a neighbour's monkey-puzzle tree. These vignettes are manifest not only throughout the window pattern but also within the house itself. The shadows generated by the front façade's distinctively cut-out brise-soleil are a source of joy for the McIntyres, who profess to rising early just to watch the intriguing patterns of the shadows as they move across the living room in the morning.
The use of shadow-making, rather than view-harnessing, is central to Woodruff's ethos, as he recently explained in the design journal Onsite. A connoisseur of urban graffiti, Woodruff sees an inherent beauty in temporary phenomena. In contrast to conventional architecture's longstanding embrace of monumental permanence, he embraces the ephemeral. "The feel of a door handle, the smell of beeswax, or in my case the effects of shadow and highlight on a wall also help us make a mark, even if it is mutable and fleeting."
It's a manifestation of Woodruff's ideas about the dynamic and transient character of architectural gestures. He bemoans the investor mentality that reduces architecture into a list of marketable assets, mast-headed by the proverbial swath of sea.
By contrast, the Courtyard House instead is inward-focused, in deference to its urbane inhabitants. The elegantly streamlined details include long cut-out slots that serve as door handles, in place of clumsy hardware. The doorways themselves read as giant reveals, stretching from floor to ceiling, with over-height lemon-yellow doors.
The front façade evokes a surreally large camera lens, with the window as aperture. The deep yellow and apple green hues are about as far away from raw wood as you can get. Yet it embodies the same principles of sustainability through natural day lighting and compact size (1,800 square feet.)
"I do have a soft spot for severe German modernism," he says, in reference to its stark architectural massing and facade. But he insists that the Courtyard House draws on the same underlying values as his first, he acknowledges its distinction.
"The image of this house and the way the house works, people can't reconcile that, because this house doesn't have that folksy, granola look," says Woodruff.
The whole of Mayne Island is less folksy than many of its Gulf Island siblings. Once the home of the Tsartlip First Nation, the island evolved in the 19th century into a pit-stop for colonial fortune-seekers, then into its contemporary incarnation as a weekend getaway.
Until recently, Mayne as been perceived as a kind of consolation prize for those priced out of Salt Spring Island. But its scattering of architectural ambitious dwellings are one signal of its emergence from the outfield. (Rick Staeling's heart-stopping Battersby Howat-designed residence is nested elsewhere on the island.)
The people who buy on Mayne Island aren't interested in the more popular, animated islands, says real estate agent Glen McLeod. "People are coming here precisely because nothing happens here," says McLeod. "They like that. They want that slow pace. They feel the world hammering in on them, and it doesn't happen here. Or at least they can pretend it doesn't happen here."
For the McIntyres, who still live half the year in a 4,000-square-foot home in central Toronto, the Courtyard House is another universe.
"The richness of experience doesn't have a place in the conventional language of real estate," notes Woodruff. "But it has a very important place in the lives of people."
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