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With the Victoria Day holiday less than a month away, many Toronto cottagers are eagerly looking forward to the May afternoon when they can flee the city for the first time this year and disappear among the beautiful islands and lakes of Ontario's northland.

Where they end up will be a matter of taste and budget. It may be something along the lines of the rustic pitched-roof shacks that small-town ministers and teachers put up for themselves in the early years of the past century. (This would certainly be my preference.) Or, less fortunately, it may be a monster home that appears to have been helicoptered in from some Toronto suburb.

For one Toronto family of four, however, the destination will be a getaway house in sharp contrast both to the traditional cottage and to the recently fashionable (and always awful) cottage-country mansion. It's a low-slung modernist house perched on a rugged 18-acre granite island in Georgian Bay - radical in inspiration, refined in detail, snugly positioned on its rocky, exposed site.

Designed by Margaret Graham and Andre D'Elia, partners in the Toronto firm Superkül Inc., this cedar-clad cottage, completed last year, has already been weathered down by the winter wind and snow to an attractive silvery grey. Other aspects of the material palette, such as the elegant, modestly scaled fireplace of dry-laid ledge limestone, help smooth the house's visual relationship with its vivid natural context.

Still, the cottage stands out vigorously from all that surrounds it and declares its freedom from the architectural traditions of the region. There is no decoration, no references to old-fashioned buildings, nothing to distract from its contemporary feel and character. The project is composed of two rectangular blocks set down parallel to each other, and separated by a walkway, on a spacious cedar deck boosted above the rocks. These blocks are also separated by use: one for the living room and dining area and kitchen, the other for bedrooms. The roofs slope upward along the lengthier axes of both elements, terminating in high walls opened by large windows.

The arrangement and size of the windows is especially interesting. Unlike more conventional Georgian Bay cottages, braced against the sometimes savage weather that surges across the district, Superkül's house is open to nature in all directions and at all times of the day, encouraging wide views through tall windows of water, rock and sky. In their classic formulations of what they believed, architectural modernists always argued strongly against dark, opaque walls, which shut out light and air, and for lightness and transparency. This silvery, glassy house, then, is a modernist dream come true, though raised in a wilder part of the world than the old modernists ever designed for.

But the forthright rejection of local architectural traditions by Ms. Graham and Mr. D'Elia raises again certain questions that often come to mind when thinking about construction in Ontario's superb cottage country. Are local traditions, which come out of those humble, pitched-roof shacks I mentioned, really so bankrupt that a whole new approach to building is called for? Is modernism an appropriate style for buildings in the landscape of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven?

To the first question, I would answer no. Creative cottage-country architects will always be ransacking the built heritage of the past for ideas and putting them to work in cottages that blend in well with traditional designs. In these pages and elsewhere, I have written about very successful cottage designs that have emerged not from a renunciation of the past, but from a fruitful dialogue with it. I know the thing can be done.

Answering my second question is slightly more complicated. The real enemy of good sense and good art in cottage country, after all, is not the thoughtful, imaginative building, whatever its style. Superkül's new house on Georgian Bay, for example, is an intelligent and sensitively designed building, and for that reason it is a welcome piece of architecture. Never mind that it is cast in a modernist idiom. It works.

The curse of cottage country, rather, is the city or suburban home that has been heedlessly plunked down up north without serious thought about either the landscape or any cultural precedents, whether traditional or modernist. I have seen some of these monstrosities sprawling gracelessly over their properties by the water's edge. It appears that no municipal agency, or anything else, can stop their construction. Until someone takes responsibility for the aesthetics of cottage country, I fear that these eyesores will continue to proliferate.

Until then, we should appreciate clients who take the trouble to hire good architects, such as Ms. Graham and Mr. D'Elia, to provide them with holiday homes in the north. With any luck, the results will be enrichments of Ontario's architecture of escape.

Can't get enough


More photos of Superkül's Georgian Bay house can be seen at


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