From the back, the Laurentian cottage that Mario Januario shares with his sister. Cristina. appears to be something it’s not: a simple, single-storey cabin with a traditional gable roof. Uncannily, the structure seems to barely kiss its steep hillside site before jutting through the air, cutting between clusters of cedar trees toward the lake beyond.
Wending down into the property, though, it becomes clear that the squat structure isn’t actually floating. It’s resting on the lid of a contemporary, flat-roofed box below, which steps and shifts to follow the dramatic contours of the land it is nestled within.
It would be forgivable to think the complex composition of the cottage is a comment on the ongoing, architectural argument as to which is better: pitched or flat roofs. If that were the case, the winner here would be clear, with the peak triumphantly straddling the alternative as though it were the victor in a wrestling match.
Instead, though, the home’s contrasting shapes are a poetic statement about inspecting people and places. Designed by Montreal’s Atelier Boomtown – a studio whose name harkens to the experimentation of early modern architecture, a time when flat and not-so-flat roofs intermingled – the dwelling was conceived to accommodate multiple families at once, providing them a zone to transition from their stressed-out city selves into their more relaxed, countrified alter egos.
Mr. Januario runs his own, successful interior design studio that is “renowned for high-end interiors,” according to La Presse. For a long time, he wanted a Laurentian escape. But finding the right property – one on an ultraclean, quiet lake prohibiting motorized vehicles, close to skiing, grocery stores and, critically, near a hospital if his young daughter, Alicia, ever got sick – took time.
Then, when he finally found a plot of land that matched his criteria – on a placid stretch of water just south of Sainte Agathe, Que., and not too far from Montreal – his sister, Cristina, asked if she could come in as a partner. Ms. Januario lives in Paris with her husband and kids and wasn’t planning to visit the Laurentians as regularly as her brother (who goes frequently throughout the year). But she liked the idea of having a traditional Canadian escape for her visits home.
Many siblings might find the notion of sharing a house daunting. To some, it would be an open invitation to relive childhood traumas – debating which one is mom’s favourite, being irritated that someone never grew out of their annoying, TV remote-hogging habits. Mr. Januario, however, happily accepted her offer. He could see the benefits of his daughter playing with her cousins, all enjoying nature together. It just meant building a bigger place than he’d imagined. Which wasn’t a problem for the generous designer. “I love to receive visitors,” he says. “My brother and his children come up, too, as do many friends.”
Because of Mr. Januario’s work, he collaborates with many different architects on a regular basis. As such, he found it difficult to choose one as the author of his cottage. So he did what any smart brother would do – he asked his sister to step in and make the choice (that way if anyone felt snubbed, he could always blame her). She chose Eric Tremblay, Boomtown’s founding principal and a former classmate of Mario at the University of Montreal.
Boomtown’s work appealed to her because it often creates intimate ties between the architecture and the nature around it. “Inside-outside transitions are very important to me,” says Mr. Tremblay, noting how crucial that relationship was for the Januario site, which didn’t previously have a dwelling on it, just trees and walking paths.
Fittingly, Mr. Tremblay envisioned the design as “part of a journey through the site,” he says. “Trails in the forest extend into inner circulation which leads to views with observation posts on the surrounding landscape.” In other words, whether someone is on the upper level, which houses the four bedrooms, or on the lower level, where the open-concept kitchen, living and dining areas tier down the hillside, it’s impossible to escape from the ample nature vistas.
It is, however, possible to find privacy – even when the whole Januario clan is in residence. That the house is designed for easy co-habitation is clear “as much from the outside as from the inside,” Mr. Januario says. A central staircase – visible from the exterior by a glass enclosure – stitches the disparate volumes together, while dividing the house into two private wings. Mr. Januario and his sister have suites on opposite ends, with their kids’ room between.
When the family wants to be together, “the terraces and common areas are the meeting places," he says. “They are beautiful places to gather, regardless of the time of year.”
One curious aspect of the house is the nearly achromatic colour scheme – the exterior is mainly clad in black wood planks; the interiors are largely white with touches of grey. It contrasts Mr. Januario’s portfolio, which tends to embrace pops of colour and exuberant flourishes, even when the walls are cream or ivory.
But as Mr. Januario explains it, the interiors were conceived in lock-step with the architecture. “As the interior designer, you should never wait until the end of a project to intervene,” he says. “It may be too late when the architect submits his final plans.”
For his own home, he wanted a simple backdrop to capture the ephemeral beauties of families coming, going and sharing time together. And he wanted a place to admire the changing leaves on the trees outside and the ever-changing reflection of the sky in the water. The paint choices and wall finishes are restrained. But based on the life within and around the architecture, there is abundant colour and character everywhere.
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