Galley Avenue is much like every other well-treed street in Toronto's old Parkdale neighbourhood. Its buxom family homes stand behind the sidewalk like so many well-nourished Edwardians, their brick facades lending the street an attractively prim and proper look.
But something else about Galley Avenue is typical of the district. It's the occasional interruption of the streetscape by houses or vacant lots sharply smaller than what's around them. Too wide for a driveway, too narrow for the kind of ample family home usual in this neighbourhood, these orphaned spaces have long been ignored as too tight to build on. But Toronto's recent spike in land prices has meant that narrow Parkdale lots are now getting long second looks from prospective home builders who, only a few years ago, would not have given them a second glance.
So it happens that Galley Avenue has become the site of an interesting experiment in building well on an unusually snug site.
The challenge faced by Toronto designer Donald Chong was the creation of an adequate home for a couple with two small boys on a property that could accommodate a house only 12 feet wide.
The clients - he's in the financial industry, she's an art historian - also wanted a house that embodied the ideals of efficiency and clean linearity preached by the modern movement in architecture. And they asked for the grace of engaging architectural detail, and the kind of resolute urbanity their narrow house would need to hold its own in the Galley Avenue streetscape.
The architect's solution to this tall order is a long, nearly 2,500-square-foot building that faces the street with a crisply modern front. A curtain of glass falls two storeys from the high turret of flat rooflines to a ground-level platform of concrete and brick. The geometry is no-nonsense and practical, yet hardly heavy-handed: A bright yellow fire hydrant out front seems like the perfect lawn ornament - an accidental piece of pop art - to counterpoint the buoyantly youthful facade.
The necessary economy of the scheme is offset by its transparency and lightness. The traditional front wall has been stripped away to reveal a stair floating up between interior floors, and to depict the movement of the family in the course of everyday life. (This high visibility on the street side - a nod to the modernist architectural ideal of interiors that open forthrightly to the exterior world - is something the clients were especially keen on.)
When laying out the building's open-plan spaces and intervals, Mr. Chong had hardly a fraction of an inch of lateral leeway.
But along the 62-foot-long axis of the building, he has introduced a series of small incidents that enliven the passage from front to back. Window openings appear where none is expected, for example, and subtle ornamental moments break up otherwise flat expanses of wall and ceiling. A staircase fabricated from steel, wood and glass touches down lightly in the dining room, like a ship's gangway. And instead of moving along at a uniform level, the grade rises up a step between the living room and dining area, quietly accenting the difference between purposes.
There is another grade change between dining room and the kitchen at the rear, this time more decisive: The drop is just under four feet, or seven steps.
While time will tell whether this separation is practically manageable - seven steps seem like a lot to negotiate while serving a meal - the point of the exercise is clear enough: to lower the kitchen to the level of the small back garden, which the family intends to use as an outdoor room.
As Mr. Chong pointed out, the usual place in Toronto houses for a grade-change is between kitchen and garden. His manoeuvre directly associates the two rooms, inside and outside. Moreover, they are linked, not by an opaque wall and portal arrangement, but by a glass door and window 13 feet tall. Like the front facade between street and house, this transparent arrangement links two realms of living instead of emphatically segregating them.
The house's centre of gravity is the restrained, high-ceilinged kitchen. Everything is compactly arranged, like a ship's galley, with a freestanding island for family meals and trim, efficient cabinetry and fixtures by Bulthaup. From this key room, the whole house rises and flourishes, up the stairs in the dining area to a playroom and the boys' bedroom-level, then up along the glass facade to the third-floor master bedroom.
Mr. Chong calls his structure "a prototype of the narrow city house." It is a notably thoughtful response to a difficult urban site.