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For Toronto architect, a detour to modern

Toronto architect Gordon Ridgely is best known for the elegant, intelligent Georgian mansions he has been creating here in Hogtown since the early 1970s.

During an interview a couple of years ago, he told me the reasons for his long-running and productive admiration for the neoclassical manner. They include the style's preoccupation with order and restraint, its sensitivity to refined proportions and level-headed planning. Its civilization, in other words.

Recalling that these qualities had long been cherished by the leading modernist architects -Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is a good example - I asked Mr. Ridgely if he would ever consider designing a modern house.

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"I'd love to get a commission to do something like that," he replied. "Gosh, I'd love to!"

I gathered from these remarks that he had never before landed such a job. I was mistaken. As I discovered recently, there is indeed a modern residential project by Gordon Ridgely in Toronto. To be sure, the house reflects the late-romantic episode in architecture known as Art Deco, not the glass and steel rigour of the International Style - but certifiably modern it is. Last week, I visited it.

Completed in 1994 for a family of four and a live-in housekeeper, this urban villa hovers on the edge of a ravine south of St. Clair Avenue West. It features about 6,500 square feet of living space distributed throughout three levels. There is a main floor for the living room, dining area, kitchen and study; an upper floor for the family's bedrooms; and a lower storey, opening toward the garden and pool at the rear, for the housekeeper's suite, guest rooms, storage and so on.

The house sits on a site shaped like a wedge of pie, with the point of the wedge aimed at the street. There is no drama, modernist or otherwise, in the street-side façade of the building. It's a simple, boxy, stripped-classical composition of beige bricks, with limestone lintels over a few plain windows - an arrangement that is retiring to the point of timidity. (Mr. Ridgely's client said the front façade was deliberately muted in order to placate a neighbourhood association with vociferous views about what should go up on the street.)

What's notable about this house becomes apparent, however, the moment the visitor steps over the threshold.

An ideologically pure promoter of the International Style would have laid out a radically open plan on the interior, a pool of space with currents flowing freely from one island of furnishings to another. But for his part, Mr. Ridgely brings to bear a sense of Georgian house-planning on the floor plan, with a result that is modern, but conservatively so.

Every zone on the main floor, for instance, is balanced along a spatial axis that runs from the front door straight to the back of the kitchen. Clear visual connections are maintained among the various parts of the ensemble (living room, dining room and so on). But each area is subtly yet firmly distinguished from the next by means of large framed portals and crown mouldings in an abstract geometrical pattern. Most of these separations are only suggested, though the kitchen and the study can be shut right off behind very tall doors.

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The overall effect of these main-floor moves is one of calm dignity, perfect for the gracious entertaining the family liked to do. The very relaxed modernity preferred by many interior designers nowadays is absent from the scheme. but Mr. Ridgely's kind of formality is not at all stiff or pretentious. Rather, he has gathered and bundled the interior space of the house into parcels that, like all Art Deco domestic manoeuvres, speak a visual language that is both deeply traditional and as streamlined as today.

From its very modest face on the street, the house broadens and deepens as it opens toward the back garden and the ravine beyond. But its relationship to the lovely natural setting, like the layout of its interior spaces, is temperate and understated, not radical. The windows at the rear are not huge, nor do they go from the floor all the way up to the high ceilings. But they do their job well, admitting much light into the interior from both front and back.

Speaking of light, Mr. Ridgely's boldest gesture in this house is the skylight that runs the length of the upstairs corridor. This element transforms the long hall from the dark central walkway it could have been into a bright galleria, welcoming light into the bedrooms that line it.

So much for Mr. Ridgely's excursion into Art Deco. As a partisan of the International Style, I would like to see him now do something in this great modern architectural lingo. Mies meets Gordon Ridgely's brand of Georgian styling, Jane Austen meets Le Corbusier: the marriage could be dynamite.

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