In January, 2013, Chicago had its biggest fire in a decade – a blaze in an historic warehouse on the south side of the city. Nearly 200 firefighters worked through the night, spraying water that froze instantly. By sunrise, the building was encased. Icicles hung from the lintels and entablature.
If you’re a design-minded person and you google morning-after photos of the event, a number of thoughts might come to your mind. First, there’s the question as to whether the ice formed or was put in place. Nobody intended to convert the warehouse into a winter palace, but if you accept that ice is chemically no different from water then you must also accept that the transformation of the building was set in motion by humans. Ice is a material like any other: It can be produced, manipulated and sculpted.
It’s also an insulator. As the fire subsided, the ice became a kind of membrane. Nighttime photos of the occurrence are particularly dramatic: They show a smouldering glow through a skin of ice, like a fireplace behind tempered glass.
The most obvious takeaway is that ice is beautiful. Few materials are as sinuous or as textured. It’s a shame Gaudi didn’t work with ice. Online, you can find hundreds of images of ice-covered buildings: a storefront from WWI-era Philadelphia, an abandoned school in Minneapolis.
The Italian architect Stefano Pujatti, founder of the firm Elasticospa, showed me one such photograph when I met with him this October: a sepia-toned image of a turn-of-the-century façade in Montreal. The icicles were thick, like bars over the windows. “I’m a Cancer, a water sign,” he says. “Water, to me, is a fascinating material, because it becomes air, it becomes fluid, it becomes solid.” We’d met to discuss a new project, the Maison Glacé (the Ice House), which incorporates ice not just as a decorative element but also as a functional component of the design. (The project name is a play on marron glacé, a confection popular in France and northern Italy.)
In addition to his offices near Venice and Torino, Mr. Pujatti now has a Toronto base alongside the firm KFA Architects and Planners – the architects-of-record for his Canadian projects – and a suite of local in-progress works, one of which is the Maison Glacé in the city’s Beaches neighbourhood. The clients – Shauna Levy, outgoing president and chief executive of the Design Exchange museum, and her husband, Anne Vos,who runs an agency representing high-end brands – wanted a home like nothing else in the city. “Given the work that I do,” Ms. Levy says, “it’s important that I’m associating myself, personally, with projects that open new ways of thinking.” (She will soon be moving back into the private sector as CEO of MoCanna, a start-up focusing on cannabis culture and retail.)
The couple knows Mr. Pujatti’s work well. On a trip to Venice in 2015, they and their then 11-year-old daughter stayed in a Pujatti-designed apartment. The building, as with many others in the city, was leaning into the canal. Rather than working against this feature, Mr. Pujatti installed terrazzo that gets chunkier as the floors slope downward, suggesting a flow of sediment.
Virtually all architects and designers describe their work as “context sensitive,” although this term has a range of meanings. It’s easy enough to install ersatz tracery on a window (that’s Venetian, isn’t it?) and then brag that your work “incorporates local influences.” To do what Mr. Pujatti did in Venice, though – that is, to respond not only to regional vernacular but to the vagaries of nature – requires a higher degree of sensitivity.
Ms. Levy and Mr. Vos loved the Venice apartment, and they’d been eyeing a Toronto property for years – a corner lot on an alleyway, which backs onto a park. They bought the land in December, 2016, and hired Mr. Pujatti immediately. (Construction on the house will commence this spring.) They had a few demands: Mr. Vos envisioned a sunken garage, Ms. Levy wanted interior spaces with low ceilings redolent of a California bungalow, and the financial imperatives of the Toronto market dictated that the couple must have a rental property, which they decided to put on the front half of the lot.
For the primary dwelling, Mr. Pujatti drew a concrete, split-level structure with staircases that branch from a central atrium and lead to cozy roosts. (You might think of these nooks as conceptual “bungalows” within the three-storey home.) For the back, he designed a suite of terraced balconies that will double as window overhangs.
The most interesting component of the house is the northwestern elevation, which runs lengthwise. “It’s a tricky façade,” Mr. Pujatti says. Put too much glass on it, and the interiors will bake under the high July sun. But in January, the sun hangs lower; cover the wall in concrete and you’ll repel what little natural light you get. The ideal structure, Mr. Pujatti reasoned, would somehow change with the seasons.
Perhaps he could use ice to achieve this effect. Mr. Pujatti designed a screen of metal mesh that will run parallel to the northwestern façade at a five-inch remove. Some windows will sit behind this structure, while others will jut out and poke through. The gutters, located above the mesh, will have holes at their bases, enabling water to trickle down. In summer, the metal will partly shield the wall from sun. As the weather gets colder, ice will form on the mesh, casting dappled light into the interiors of the home. “The light of Toronto is fantastic,” Mr. Pujatti says. “It’s the same light as Florence. After snow storms, you have these incredible clear-blue skies.”
The ice wall isn’t merely decorative, though; it’s expected to offset heating costs. Even when the outdoor temperature dips below -20 C, the air between the house and the ice should hover around zero. Ice, in effect, will act as a buffer – an elemental material that nevertheless protects the home from the elements. If there isn’t enough precipitation for the ice to form naturally, a pump will deliver salvaged rainwater from an underground cistern. (The clients were immediately taken with the concept, although Ms. Levy jokes that the name of the project – Ice House – initially gave her pause. “I thought, ‘What does that make me? The ice queen?’”)
While Mr. Pujatti has never worked with ice before, the design fits nicely within his oeuvre. “I am a person who easily gets bored,” he says. “I need change around me.” He likes metals that corrode and wood that weathers. He once designed a graveyard hidden behind a corn field in Pordenone, Italy; the site becomes briefly visible after the harvest. In 2013, he completed a ski chalet in the Dolomites with deep gullies on the roof, which channel snow much as the Maison Glacé manipulates ice. His designs are all about variability.
It’s a theme Canadians should appreciate, given the nature of our weather. In the 2011 Massey Lecture series and book, Winter, essayist Adam Gopnik argued that the cold season gives people an earthly metaphor of cyclicality, death, and renewal. To live with winter is to be instinctively aware of the passage of time: You watch as frost creeps across your windows or you wake up one morning to discover that nighttime snowfall has remade the topography of your neighbourhood.
The Maison Glacé, in short, is a mutable dwelling for a mutable climate. It will change not only with the seasons but from day to day, as ice forms, flows and fissures. “Ecological design,” Mr. Pujatti says, “is about enlisting nature as part of your project.” Many designers strive to be timeless. He wants his work to exist in time.