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Living spaces

A softly modern house Add to ...

When architect Jillian Aimis sat down to design a new home for herself and her family on a conventional building lot in north Toronto, she decided to stick with sturdy precedents in the history of the modern North American house.

The flat roof, the crisp, angular geometry of the envelope, and the movement of textures and colours from the outside to the inside, Ms. Aimis told me, draw on examples crafted long ago by Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And the extensive glazing on the exterior, and especially the fluid flow of space inside the structure, suggest the influence of popular mid-century California modernists such as Charles and Ray Eames.

If the Toronto result of these borrowings from twentieth-century America is not strikingly original--Ms. Aimis is no revolutionary--her 3,700-square-foot house nevertheless embodies a successful adaptation of modernist design principles to the needs of a young contemporary family of four.

The architect calls her work “softer modernism”--softer, that is, than more severely tailored, ideologically rigorous modern projects of yesteryear--and the label suits what she has completed here. It’s a study in good transitions from exterior to interior, and within the interior volume. It features warm surfaces and materials. And it’s a house that stands up for classical modernist simplicity while speaking eloquently of hospitality and relaxed, sociable family life.

Take, for instance, the transitions I just mentioned. The exterior cladding is sombre grey brick with an iron rust cast to it, which allows the house to retire a bit into its context of ordinary single-family dwellings from the 1940s. (An all-white modern building would surely be too stark and pushy for this comfortable old neighbourhood.) Ms. Aimis has carried this external restraint into the volume of the house, where expanses of walnut millwork, solid walnut flooring and the fireplace of dark grey lava rock create rich bass-notes in the architect’s restricted orchestration of colours.

While its finishes and furnishings are subdued in tone, however, the interior is by no means dark. Bright south light floods into the living room through large openings, and more subtle north light washes the kitchen and family room through spacious white-framed windows. Illumination gets into the centre of this shoebox-shaped, two-level house (whose long axis runs east-west, parallel to the street) along any of the several routes Ms. Aimis has laid out on the ground floor.

For example, the interior space spills from the entrance zone, in one direction, into the formal living-room area (with its grand piano), and, straight ahead, into spatial pools that are loosely articulated into kitchen, dining area and family room. Also straight ahead and in the middle of the rear wall: the staircase up to the second level, an entertaining rhapsody on high-life hotel themes from the 1950s, such as swanky, abstract metal grillwork.

Standing just inside the mahogany front door, the visitor can instantly grasp the plan of the ground floor. No doors or interior walls block the sightlines. Spatial definition is provided by extruded volumes faced by stone or wood: the chimney of the fireplace between the dining area and the family room, for instance, and the washroom dropped between the living room and kitchen. The outcome of these design moves is an interior that welcomes and orients the visitor the moment he steps over the threshold, just as an architectural work that looks back to mid-century residential modernism should do.

I have one problem with this house--or, I should say, with neo-modern houses in general. My problem has nothing to do with anything Jillian Aimis has done or failed to do. She has produced a serious, credible design for the kind of living she and her family enjoy. No, my issue is with the living room as such. There is one here. But apart from the fact that realtors claim they can’t sell a house without one, what purpose does a living room serve these days?

Nobody actually lives there any longer, if anybody has done so since the advent of TV. This family, for example, spends its leisurely hours together in the snug, ample ground-floor room with the fireplace, television screen and wide views of the back garden--not in the living room. The space allotted to the living room in this project, and in almost every other modern house I see, could be usefully parcelled out to areas that are definitely used, such as the kitchen, dining room or family room. As I was reminded when I visited Ms. Aimis’ attractive project--again, this is a criticism, not of her art, but of the real-estate market--the architecture of the modern house still has some catching up to do, if it is to keep pace with the real lives of modern people.

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