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'FW.house' by atelier A5 in nukui, nerima-ku, tokyo, japan. (Images courtesy atelier A5, kenichi suzuki)
'FW.house' by atelier A5 in nukui, nerima-ku, tokyo, japan. (Images courtesy atelier A5, kenichi suzuki)


Squeezed in, but abounding in open space Add to ...

Over the next 20 years, Toronto will welcome millions of new citizens from across Canada and the world. (At least I hope these newcomers will be welcome, Mayor Rob Ford's grumblings about immigrants notwithstanding.) Where will our fresh-off-the-plane neighbours live?

If nothing is done to slow the remorseless advance of suburbia, many could end up somewhere in the monotonous, environmentally unsustainable low-density sprawl that already stretches far to the east, west and north of Toronto.

Sprawl, however, is neither inevitable nor unstoppable. The construction of many new residential high-rises downtown and farther afield, and the recladding and refreshing of Toronto's thousand or so elderly tall apartment buildings, could substantially ease the population pressure on the city's edges.

But the skyscraper is not the only tool that's available for creating livable, high-density urban fabric to combat suburban expansion. With some imagination and ingenuity on the part of planners and their political masters in city council, laneways and little streets and neglected nooks and crannies of the city could be opened up to a kind of intensive, small-scale housing development that is now highly restricted by law.

There are noble motives behind this limitation. Toronto has not forgotten, for example, the dilapidated, crowded slums that infested the downtown core in the first half of the 20th century. Nobody wants to see that passage in our history repeated. Nor need it be, so long as common sense and a strong sense of civic purpose prevail in the field of intensification.

Indeed, a few pioneers have already shown how such laneway development can work. They have braved the approvals process, gotten the hard-won permissions, and taken up residence in tight spots across the city. They might be joined by many more adventurous souls - aficionados of hard-edged, inner-city living - if the rules governing high-density housing were relaxed.

The Japanese are ahead of North Americans in this regard, and we have much to learn from them about architectural infill and snug city living. I have recently been cruising the Internet in search of good buildings in small Japanese places, and here is one instance of what I've discovered.

It's called FW House. Designed by the Japanese office Atelier A5 for a Tokyo site about 480 square feet in area, this strongly vertical building is an urbane little single-family dwelling that makes up in height and flair for what it lacks in ground space. (The footprint of the structure is only 270 square feet.) Expanses of dark galvanized steel cladding alternate with blank white paint to form the tall exterior skin, a jaunty affair that expresses, in good modernist fashion, the rhythm of internal spaces. There are not many windows, and they are irregularly scattered across the façade. But what windows there are admit plenty of sunshine into the building.

That light plays freely across the inside. The 786 square feet of the interior are distributed throughout a series of stacked volumes, each visibly held apart from the next by a broad, open horizontal fissure. This sequence of separations makes the volumes seem to hover free of each other, and creates unusual transparency in the structure.

The flows of space and light made possible by the floor separations and windows is necessary, as it turns out, because the interior could easily seem sombre without sufficient openings: The architects have used the dark steel cladding to line the interior as well as the exterior of their house. The effect of this combination of steel, white walls and wood finishes is serious, not solemn - though I think some bright, colourful art could usefully warm up the overall internal atmosphere of severity.

The visitor enters this attractively complicated stack through a wide barn door at the base. This door immediately puts you in the garage: the motorcycle, clearly a beloved possession, is the first thing you see once you cross the threshold. Beyond the garage area, behind a glass wall, lies the dining room and kitchen. The second floor features a living room, bath and terrace, while bedrooms are situated above.

FW House is an instance of effective city-building in a small territory: compact but chic, very contemporary, yet amiable in its relationship to the ordinary fabric around it. (The pitched roof, after all, says "home" in every language.) Were it in Toronto, this small, robust project would certainly not be suitable for everyone. It isn't for people with many things and doodads, or for people who need a garden. For the right family, however - one with downtown attitude, a taste for minimal living, and a little daring - it could well be the perfect house.

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