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For some 30 years, the comfortable, staid Victorian on Rosedale's Crescent Road was its owners' perfect house. There was room for everyone and everything: the surgeon, who is also a prolific scientific writer; his wife, a professional musician with a grand piano and a love of gardening; and their three growing sons, with all the stuff boys accumulate.

Then, in the usual course of things, the boys grew up and moved on. And, with that change, the Victorian family home stopped being perfect. It was simply too big.

Faced by this quandary, some couples would opt for the convenience of condominium living. But not the surgeon and musician, who liked living in a house.

Another possibility for this veteran Rosedale family was to shift into a smaller house in the neighbourhood -- not an easy assignment in this district of mostly large homes.

In the end, the couple embarked on what turned out to be a long and difficult route. They decided to sever their garden from the Victorian, sell the original house, and build a contemporary dwelling where the garden had been.

Neighbourhood opposition

Putting up a house of any kind, of course, is a hard job. But building a completely modern one in Rosedale invites a special problem: the wrath of other residents convinced that the only architectural style appropriate in that part of town is sedately historical and revivalist. (And who can blame them for being reluctant, given the modernistic monsters that have gone up in Rosedale in recent years?)

Annoyed neighbours threw up enough legal and regulatory roadblocks to slow the process considerably.

What finally won them over, or at least made them relent, was the bold but sensitive design by Andre D'Elia and Margaret Graham, principals in the Toronto firm Superkül Inc. Architect. Now completed, Superkül's two-level building on Crescent Road is an excellent example of infill housing in a dense urban community, and an especially well-mannered contemporary response to an established, old-fashioned context.

Fitting in

Composed of strong flat bands and boxy volumes stacked compactly, the house faces the street with visual strength roughly comparable to the façades round about. It's hardly demure, but it doesn't shout about itself. The house is not too tall or too stout, and its horizontal lines attractively echo existing rooflines and other basic structural features in the buildings on either side of it.

Modest elegance

The residence is further nested into its environment by the cladding of wood and brown brick, which lends the façade a warm, familiar colouration not unlike that of other homes along the street. The broad expanse of glass on the ground level is a distinctively modernist touch, but even this bit of streetside flair is restrained by the strong brow of overhang running above the tall front windows. This is a Rosedale house, in other words, without Rosedale's earnest historicizing, surely, but with modest elegance and presence befitting the posh old neighbourhood.

No more radical than its exterior, the interior continues the façade's themes of clarity, cleanness of line and warmth. The clients wanted much natural light, and they get it via the tall windows at front and rear, but especially from the clerestory that crowns the central atrium.

Entering the house by the front door, the visitor finds himself immediately on the limestone floor of this lovely atrium, which is dominated by a grand piano washed by natural light sifting down through the entire central volume of the house.

The effect is one of fine calm, a mood that radiates outward from the atrium, into the living room at the front of the house, and into the dining and kitchen areas at the back.

Spare furnishings

The surgeon and the musician have sensibly kept the furnishings of the house's first level spare and plain, though the result feels neither cold nor bare.

Rising up alongside the atrium's high wall are a simple stairway and the shaft of a small elevator, the latter to accommodate an elderly relative who lives with the couple, and that's also meant to enable the owners to move around easily, if the stairs get to be too much.

On the upper level are four rooms, all arranged around the atrium: a little guest room, a somewhat larger space for their relative, a study for the surgeon, and the master bedroom, which looks out over the rear garden and a coach house.

With an area of 2,700 square feet, the Crescent Road house is not large. But it has been expertly crafted to serve as a home for people who want to stay -- and live well -- in one place for the rest of their lives.

*****

Modernist revival

The modern house that Superkül designed for Crescent Road has an impressive pedigree that goes back to one of the most revolutionary moments in the story of architecture.

It was early in the last century that avant-garde architects in Europe began to propose houses of a kind never seen before: with flat roofs instead of pitched ones, façades stripped of all ornament, strongly horizontal profiles and walls of glass. In the minds of these visionaries, the new architecture would lead to the overthrow of all the eclectic historical styles that flourished in the 19th century. It would open the way to a new possibility of human dwelling in line with the era's radical advances in technology, industry and communications.

The utopianism that inspired the early prophets of modernist architecture quickly faded. But the residential style they created turned out to have a life of its own, capturing the imagination of leading architects and a few clients -- fans of the flat-topped house have always been a sophisticated minority -- on both sides of the Atlantic well into the 1960s.

By the 1970s, the vogue for modernist houses had largely petered out -- or so it seemed. The present century has seen a notable revival of interest in the forms crafted by the early idealists, and even in their ideas about architecture's role in the enhancement and renewal of human life.

But don't take my word for it. Go for a swing through any upmarket Toronto neighbourhood, ignore the becolumned and otherwise pretentious monster houses, and look for the new homes with flat roofs. What you find may not be spectacular. But even a modernist knock-off will likely have some of the daring and pizzazz that was launched into the world a century ago.

jmays@globeandmail.com

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