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Koo's Garage, by architect Bruce Haden. Credit Kristopher Grunert
Koo's Garage, by architect Bruce Haden. Credit Kristopher Grunert


Block buster: Koo's Garage reshapes a Vancouver neighbourhood Add to ...

Back in 2001, a few boom cycles ago, Vancouver architect Bruce Haden embarked on a housing project that was both professionally strategic and intensely personal. On the threshold of joining the partnership of acclaimed firm Hotson Bakker, he wanted to design a home for himself that would be close to his workplace and imbued with the spirit of urbanism on which his new partners had built their reputations. Almost a decade later, this compact townhouse continues to inspire its owner-designer. "It would take a lot for me to leave," Mr. Haden says. "Four kids, maybe. Or a spectacular job offer in Copenhagen."

Mr. Haden chose Strathcona as his neighbourhood and a dilapidated commercial parking garage as his base material. Orchestrating a six-unit deal with Robert Brown of Chesterman Property Group, they transformed the garage into a block of compact, urbane lofts and townhouses and made the corner unit Mr. Haden's own. The resulting 850-square-foot townhouse is now a local fixture.

It's still known as Koo's long after the garage's conversion, even as the neighbourhood transforms around him. Last year's market yielded the first Strathcona house to sell for more than $1-million, Mr. Haden notes, and his own unit's market value has more than doubled to roughly $700,000 today. Yet even as the proverbial movers, shakers and young families lope in, the neighbourhood is still with dotted with teardowns, drug dens and the occasional brothel, which to some observers just add to the area's Runyonesque charm. "It's not completely yuppified," Mr. Haden says. "I moved [to Strathcona]because I thought it was interesting and quirky and fun. … The feeling I get now is that it's even more interesting and more quirky and more fun."

Mr. Haden is renowned as a social architect, in all senses of the word. He loves designing community projects such as the Okanagan's Nk'Mip Desert Cultural Centre - and he loves parties. Every November, Koo's Corner serves as a base camp for friends and colleagues partaking in the annual Eastside Culture Crawl of gallery open houses. (The translucent glass door panels of the garage also serves as public street cinema, projecting vintage film loops during crawl nights and other soirées.) Mr. Haden's home is his social experiment and his calling card.

The floors, cupboards and dining-room tabletop are crafted with reclaimed wood. The compact living room segues into a dining-room zone that could be dubbed Gothic modern, with its double-height ceiling and 13-foot-tall south-facing window. Off the dining room, a staircase turns down to the guest quarters and garage-cum-party room and up to the main sleeping quarters. At arm's length from the table is the semi-open kitchen, a cube-like niche accented with deep-red ceramic tiling.

With minimal floor space, the furniture has to multitask. Mr. Haden custom-designed his dining-room table, a two-piece Corian tabletop with four double-column legs that can be reconfigured to seat up to 12 people. During casual gatherings, the architecture itself becomes the furniture: the generously deep Gothic modern window ledge, a banquette; the snug staircase off the dining room, a side chair. And, most unusual multitasker of all: the birch-framed queen-size master bed that conceals a bathtub within.

At the recent culture crawl bash, architect pal Jennifer Marshall offers to do the bed-to-tub demonstration, now a regular party event at Mr. Haden's. ("I had to get used to the strangeness of everyone coming up to the bedroom during his parties to see this," his girlfriend, Holly Alyea, confides.) While a reporter and a visiting Viennese curator look on, Ms. Marshall grabs the castor-legged bed frame with one hand and pulls it open like a matchbox, revealing a generous-sized Kohler tub. An invention straight out of a Wallace and Gromit show, wouldn't you say? "No, it's more a John Soane kind of piece," replies Ms. Marshall, referring to the architect who devised similarly clever space-saving fixtures for his small namesake museum in London.

Back in Vienna, curator Elke Krasny comments by e-mail how much the bathtub-under-the-bed evokes "certain fold-away/make-part-of ideas of the 1920s, and then of course the futuristic all-in-one living systems of Joe Colombo." (She means Joe Colombo the Milanese designer, not Joe Colombo the New York mob boss.) This is a home that's highly owner-specific. The tiny upstairs bathroom features only a shower stall and the toilet, with the requisite sink stand installed just outside the bathroom door and, of course, that bathtub/bed. Mr. Haden's highly personal rationale: Most washrooms are designed in such a way that when you're soaking in the tub, the dominant view is usually a close-up of the john. His view from the tub is of Strathcona's MacLean Park across the street.

Mr. Haden exults in the neighbourhood camaraderie and impromptu social visits encouraged by the design. The floor-to-ceiling living room window brings in a full view of whatever urban theatre happens to transpire across the road. His home is the end unit of the three asymmetrical-roofed townhouses affixed to the south end of the transformed garage. On this architectural triptych, the glass awnings form canopies over the front decks, which align in such a way that a single step outside can throw you into an instant tête-à-tête with the guy next door.

Depending on your perspective, this is architecture as friend-making machine, or architecture as fishbowl. As Mr. Haden concurs, it blurs the boundaries of private life in a way that many would find unsettling - but not him, not yet. "I don't get sick of that fishbowl, but I recognize that I'm somewhat unusual that way," he says. "The way we build our cities, privacy is easy to achieve. It's community that's difficult to achieve."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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