Skip to main content

To celebrate their first dozen years or so in the business of design, Toronto architects Margaret Graham and Andre D’Elia have published a book, Rain Gravity Heat Cold. This fact is worth noting, if only because most architectural practices these days opt to make their presence known to the world (when they bother at all) via the Web, or with the help of publicists.

But superkül, as Ms. Graham and Mr. D’Elia call their office, would be something out of the ordinary had the principals never decided to issue a book.

Leafing through its pages, I was reminded of the memorable residential projects I have visited and reviewed here over the years, including 40R Laneway House, in Toronto’s Summerhill neighbourhood, and Rosedale’s light-filled, gracious Split House. I was also informed about an array of homes, inside and beyond the city limits, with the same high quality of intelligence, attention to detail, and clean contemporary styling I admired in the houses I have seen.

The eye-catching home at 40R Laneway in the Summerhill neighbourhood (Tom Arban)

The thoughtfully designed book is more than a portfolio of attractive images. It is also an imaginative work that tells superkül’s story from a variety of perspectives.

In his stiff but convincing foreword, architect and Harvard professor Kiel Moe zeroes in on the formal excellence of the designers’ work – of the “exceptional, enigmatic dimension of the superkül work: the way in which the routine and extra-ordinary are deftly reimagined and constructed to become extraordinary.”

The 40R Laneway House (Tom Arban)

The interview with Ms. Graham and Mr. D’Elia by Toronto historian Eric Beck Rubin, on the other hand, is an engaging, unstarched portrait of a marriage, and of the principals’ creative partnership, its inevitable tensions, its outcomes. At one point, Mr. Rubin asks: “Aside from spatial complexity, what are some other recurring threads in your work?” Mr. D’Elia: “I can go through a whole list. There are materials. Light. Our spaces are typically bright. This is something we try to achieve – we want people to feel alive in them.” Ms. Graham: “We differ in that, I like shadows.” (The composition of the couple’s houses usually shows strong rhythmic contrasts of sunlight and shading.)

The very layout of the book, orchestrated by Blok Design, also relates a tale.

Compass House by superkul (Ben Rahn / A-Frame)

Instead of a judicious procession of equally weighted projects, the book is a sturdy, souvenir album of numerous houses, offices and other buildings done since 2002, when the firm was founded. There are fine professional images (many by Shai Gil and Tom Arban), snapshots of houses lit up by festivity, lively conceptual experiments, a little portfolio featuring shifting patterns of light and shadow in an interior open to the sky, a series of pictures that illustrate a process of creating a formal model.

Some of superkül’s many works are commemorated skimpily, and I would have liked to see their expert Three Dormer House accorded more coverage than a glimpse the size of a postage stamp. But several homes and offices surely get the emphasis they deserve. One assumes, for example, that the architects are especially proud of Compass House, in Ontario’s rural Mulmur Township, judging from the prominence given it here.

Compass House by superkul (Ben Rahn / A-Frame)

Compass House was named by the client, who intuited from the plans that the house would embrace what he called “a view in four directions that addresses the immensity of the site and pulls it back into the house to make you feel at home and cozy in two-hundred acres.” But, Ms. Graham told Mr. Rubin, it was not until the client lived in the house through a couple of seasons that he actually understood the logic of the design. “He emailed me to say, “the house works, in the way we talked about it working, and I feel it. …’ Those are the moments that I live for in practice.”

But what is it about superkül’s work that produces such feelings of groundedness and expanse? If I had to pick a word for it, I would choose spirituality – a term I rarely use for architecture, because the notion is so easily misunderstood.

Compass House by superkul (Ben Rahn / A-Frame)

Yet the architects themselves name spirituality as an motive force in their designs. Ms. Graham describes superkül’s building art as “a kind of ecclesiastical architecture, a shell for the ceremonies of life. Naves, apses, aisles, rituals are imbedded in all our projects.”

Perhaps the spiritual is the “exceptional, enigmatic dimension” that gives the work of superkül its particular resonance and poetry. In any case, there is an unforgettable “aha!” moment that I have myself experienced in their buildings, and that they report their clients having.

“It could be the way the light came into a room one day,” Mr. D’Elia said to Mr. Rubin, “and it suddenly felt like the whole house took a breath. That is what we aspire to.”