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The upside of white: Why architects are opting for this non-colour

Imagine a house where there's hardly a hint of colour, only shades of whitish-grey marble, lustrous white Corian countertops and white walls stretching up to the ceiling. For Hannah Bank, this is the place she calls home, a Victorian semi in Toronto's South Annex, recently renovated by gh3 architects. And to her, it is a deeply pleasant place to be.

"I like clean lines. After a full day, it calms me right down to sit with a cup of tea where everything is bright and clear and precise."

There is, however, the occasional accident – such as when one of her daughter's friends, for instance, will run into a clear glass wall. "My kids never do that, though," she says. "They've adapted very well."

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Not everyone would tolerate such perils in pursuit of an architectural experience. But in a substantial number of new houses and interiors, pristine, mostly achromatic minimalism is making a comeback.

"Minimalism sounds restrictive as a trend, but it's been around since Le Corbusier," says gh3's Pat Hanson, perhaps the most ardent minimalist in Canadian residential design and a strong proponent of a mostly white palette.

And indeed, Le Corbusier's groundbreaking houses of the 1920s were conspicuously clad in white stucco, free of ornament and organized into open, interconnected spaces.

"If you reduce the number of materials, you feel the space," Hanson, winner of a Governor-General's Award for architecture, explains. "You're more aware of how the walls feel on either side of you, the height of the ceiling."

At Bank's house, there is much to take in. The architects retained the brick facade but blew out the rest of the house. Hanson dropped the main floor about one metre below ground; she also created an atrium up to the roofline, installed a long clerestory window at its peak and replaced the back wall of the house with a few massive windows.

Over all, the home's effect is cerebral, cool and spatially complex. This, Hanson says, is what her clients are seeking.

"They give up living with a lot of everyday stuff and choose a deep spatial experience," she notes. "I've had more than one person tell me that living in [a gh3 house] has been an experience of serenity and peacefulness."

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For others, opting for an all-white interior is an exercise in freedom of expression.

That's the case for Julie Albert, co-author of the cookbook Bite Me, a mother of three and a frequent entertainer.

When architect Heather Dubbeldam and interior designer Kristi Morrison renovated Albert's Georgian-style house in Toronto, they introduced modernist detailing and a white-and-grey palette to the entire building.

"Julie wanted the kitchen to be the centre of the house, literally and metaphorically," Dubbeldam says. "The design of the kitchen is supposed to be a neutral backdrop for the art of cooking. We then carried that very minimal palette throughout the rest of the house."

To be sure, the kitchen, dominated by a 16-foot island in grey Statuario marble, is almost free of colour; grey Valcucine cabinets and custom millwork designed by Dubbeldam present a quiet backdrop for food, dishes and objects. A line of shelves on one side displays an ever-changing array of items. Recently, it was Albert's collection of Pez dispensers.

Elsewhere, white walls, white furniture and pale limestone also prevail.

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Dubbeldam does not always take such a monochromatic approach, but she argues that it has a strong advantage: It's timeless. And Albert, an energetic entertainer, says it leaves her free to experiment visually. "I find a pop of colour goes a long way on a white background," she says.

"If I want to change things up a little, it's a matter of [introducing] a different pillow – swap out the hot pink for the green and you've got a totally different room."

And what about the challenges of keeping the dirt away? Her three kids, aged 10 to 14, must eat their meals in the kitchen, she says. Otherwise, "I always have a Tide to Go stick handy. If I need to get something cleaned, I will. And for the number of people who come through, it's holding up amazingly well."

Like Albert, the owners of a chalet that Atelier Kastelic Buffey designed in Ontario's ski country worry little about keeping their place pristine: The Toronto firm designed the two-storey home to be casual. "The owners have four kids and it's at the base of a ski hill," architect Kelly Buffey says, "so they wanted to make it a place for play."

At the same time, that playfulness co-exists with a restrained palette of materials.

The barn-like building is wrapped in a uniform cloak of light cedar, and the inside is, again, quite white: The walls, the exposed ceiling and much of the house's central fireplace are all achromatic. The natural materials (flat-cut white oak, grey limestone, some whitewashed hemlock barn boards used for furniture) add hints of warmth and craft, a blend that evokes such European architects as Pritzker Prize winner Peter Zumthor.

For Zumthor, whose best-known work is a luxury spa in the Swiss Alps, the point of architecture is a timeless austerity that resists fast fashion and disposable culture.

"In a society that celebrates the inessential, architecture can put up a resistance, counteract the waste of forms and meanings and speak its own language," he has written.

Buffey echoes that call for simplicity – not white for its own sake, but for its psychological and even philosophical implications.

"We approach the work with the intention of using only the essential elements and design these elements with great precision," she says. "The luxury of space and natural light offers a psychologically calming effect. The house serves as a backdrop to the activity that is daily life."

And for most of us, that provides plenty to keep the eyes occupied.

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