"Joan recognized the property while she was searching on the Internet,” says John. “She could hardly believe it. The view from the lake was the same one that she’d seen so many times when fishing with her dad in that bay as a child.”
This lucky find was to be the beginning of a trip down memory lane that would see the Torontonian couple reconnect with their childhood haunts while embarking on an architectural adventure to create the perfect cottage for them and their own children.
Set on a rocky, tree covered bluff with a steep drop-off to the secluded Torrance Bay on Lake Muskoka, Ardilea Wood is a wonderful example of how intelligently designed contemporary architecture can integrate perfectly with nature. The cottage nestles into its site, hugging a giant knob of Canadian Shield; its crisp lines and mono-pitched roof screened from the lake by a stand of spruce, which provide shade and privacy to the almost fully glazed lake side elevation.
Peter Berton, partner in charge of the Toronto office of +VG Architects, recollects walking the property for the first time and being drawn to the massive rock that dominates the site. “I could see the cottage taking shape before me. I knew instinctively how it would interact with both the rock and the lake. The way in which the rock would inform the narrative, the journey to and through the house, and, how visitors would gradually come upon views of the lake.
“The cottage doesn’t have what I call curb appeal. It doesn’t instantly reveal all of its wonders. Instead, you are treated to a series of discoveries as you move in and around the cottage.”
Mr. Berton’s description is apt. On approach, the cottage is almost entirely hidden by the granite outcrop. The driveway snakes around the rock and a covered walkway leads to the front door. The galvanized metal roof peaks at the same height as the rock’s highest point and slopes away toward the as yet unseen lake. Hands instinctively trail along the rock, now a natural granite wall, which is complemented by steel grey Fibre C (cement board) cladding that partially cloaks the rear elevation of the cottage.
Inside, the light-filled reception space offers two choices – left toward the kitchen or right to a bedroom wing. Only by moving further into the kitchen/dining space are visitors able to see, through the trees, to the lake beyond.
John and Joan tell of how they met as children just minutes away from their present location. “Joan was the girl next door, my first love,” says John with a smile. “Our families had cottages side by side in Torrance Bay. We spent our summers here and we must have stared at this property hundreds of times while fishing in the bay. That’s how Joan recognized it and we knew as soon as we visited that it was perfect – the giant rock, the screen of trees, the view, even the whistle of the train that passes by all to often for some of our visitors. This was a place we already knew and loved, and the place for our own family cottage.”
Mr. Berton smiles as he listens, before telling how he worked with his client to bring their wishes to fruition. The architect guided the couple away from an initial plan to blast part of the rock and build the house on top of it, steering them instead toward a home that truly inserts itself into the site and interacts with the natural surroundings. The main living space is framed by heavy Douglas fir beams and columns; the elevated lakeside views strengthening the impression of being within the tree canopy. Stone tile and maple floors, Douglas fir wall panels and a majestic granite-clad fireplace all reference the material palette that Mother Nature has worked with right outside the cottage’s front door.
Each intersection between material or surface plane has been considered by Mr. Berton; each detail rigorously worked. The architect has enhanced the feeling of being amidst the trees by continuing the glazed wall down below the floor, removing the ‘visible frame’ and so minimizing the perceived barrier between interior and exterior. Heating vents are hidden or custom made from stone or wood. The bench in the shower runs seamlessly through the glass partition wall into the bathroom, such is the attention to detail. The kitchen is bespoke, designed by Mr. Berton, to perfectly compliment the overall architectural ambiance.
Similarly, the division of spaces within the open plan living and dining area has been carefully considered. A slatted wooden screen can be drawn from its hidden position to one side of the kitchen, across the reception/bedroom corridor to enclose the dining area. The living room is set at a lower level than kitchen and dining spaces: take three steps down, recline on the sofa and a custom designed bookcase screens views of the upper level.
Its layout disguises the size. In addition to the communal living spaces, there are four bedrooms, bathrooms, a pantry, John’s den and a guests powder room tucked discreetly away on the main level and an expansive family room and guest bedroom on the lower floor. Each room is flooded with dappled natural light, the shadows of trees creating ever-changing patterns on walls. Every step taken discovers another view of the natural surroundings that so inspired the home’s design. The house is a joy to be in. Mr. Berton has been able to perfectly capture a cozy cottage-like feel that harks back to Joan and John’s childhoods without ever resorting to pastiche tradition.
“We chose Peter to design the cottage because we felt we could trust him and allow him to design for us, knowing that he understood our connection to the place,” says John.
“We didn’t know what we were looking for when we started out, but Peter gave us exactly what we wanted. He’s captured so much of what we remember from our childhood and he’s made a place that the two of us and our own children will cherish as we create a whole new set of memories in years to come.”
Special to The Globe and Mail