The architects Rick Galezowski and Maggie Bennedsen recently built a home for themselves in what Mr. Galezowski calls the Garrison Creek Valley. It’s an accurate description, although not one that would immediately spring to my mind. I think of his neighbourhood (which, by the way, is also my neighbourhood) as Dundas West, or maybe even West Queen West – the beating heart of boho Toronto, where small-plate restaurants outnumber grocery stores, probably by a factor of 10 to one.
But the region was – and, in a sense, still is – the home of Garrison Creek, an eight kilometre stream that was diverted into the sewer system in the early 20th century. You can find evidence of this lost river if you know where to look for it. The creek carved out the amphitheatre formations you see in Christie Pits and Trinity Bellwoods Parks. It’s the reason the soil in these regions is so sandy, clammy, and fertile.
Mr. Galezowski and Ms. Bennedsen love the outdoors, and their home – an 1,800-square-foot abode called Bellwoods Lodge, which they share with their five-year-old son, Levi, and their Welsh terrier – reflects this passion. The design program rests on two premises. First, that an urban residence can be integrated into its surroundings. And second, that nature exists everywhere – even in the city.
Before having a son, the couple was nomadic, sometimes for years at a time. In 2001, they embarked on a 30-month bike trip from Inuvik to the southern tip of Latin America. They lived lightly, subsisted on $5 a day, and almost never slept indoors. In a single afternoon, they would witness dramatic changes in the landscape, as the snowy mountain passes of the Andes, for instance, gave way to the verdant farmlands of the Urubamba Valley. “We were attracted to that sense of unlimited possibility,” Mr. Galezowski says.
Raising a son meant settling down, although the couple still gets away as often as they can, even if it’s just for a weekend on the Great Lakes. (Mr. Galezowski now runs a boutique residential-design practice, called, appropriately, Great Lake Studio, and Ms. Bennedsen is a senior associate at Kohn Shnier Architects.) Even when they’re at home, though, they still feel as if they’re out in nature. Theirs is a house that invites the outdoors in.
The place is built on a slope, a feature that is reflected in the architecture. The ground floor steps upward by three feet right between the street-facing library and the kitchen at the back. This pattern reappears in the two upper levels, evoking the way layers of rock sediment replicate changes in the underlying topography. The second floor has Levi’s bedroom at the front and then a higher master bedroom out back. The third floor, again, moves upward, from the expansive living room, with its wraparound cedar ceilings, to the outdoor patio, which is above the neighbourhood rooflines and surrounded by foliage.
At the centre of the house, at the exact spot where the interiors step up, there’s a three-storey skylit atrium, which sends light cascading downward. This isn’t only a fair-weather feature; the interiors reflect the full moodiness of the outdoors. When it’s dusky or foggy or overcast outside, you feel that ambience everywhere in the house. (It doesn’t hurt that the material palette – slate, cedar and rift-cut white oak – looks good in all kinds of natural light.)
The atrium is more than a lightwell, though. It’s also a kind of vertical passage that knits the regions of the home together. The Bellwoods Lodge is less an assemblage of rooms than a series of interlocking volumes. The spaces may be clearly demarcated, but they flow into one another. When working behind his desk, which is on the second floor, overlooking the atrium, Mr. Galezowski often chats with his son, who may be playing elsewhere in the home.
He recalls one instance, in which he and Ms. Bennedsen were cooking downstairs, all the while within earshot of Levi, who was singing to himself as he played with Lego in the top-floor living room. Suddenly, though, the singing stopped, and the couple stepped out of the kitchen to see what had happened. “A bunch of plastic army figures wearing parachutes came sailing down the lightwell, onto the floor around us,” Mr. Galezowski says. “Levi was looking down at us laughing.”
In short, the architecture is all about connections – both the inward- and outward-facing kinds. A week after my original visit, I came back to see the house at sunset. There was still a hint of natural light, supplemented by dimly lit wall sconces. It felt dusky, even indoors. The plants in the backyard – ferns, hydrangeas and paper birch trees, which grow happily in the Garrison Creek soil – were illuminated by uplights. Once the sun set completely, I could no longer see past them, at least from inside the house, and I could almost trick myself into thinking that the forest went on forever.
Mr. Galezowski took me to the top-floor deck, where he had his Orion telescope trained on Saturn. It took a moment to figure out what I was looking at. Once I focused, though, I could make out the planet, the rings, and that eerie dark zone between them. We were in the middle of the city, but I felt very far away.
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