I can’t take credit for this analogy – it’s my wife’s – but it’s been effective when explaining the difference between modernist and faux historic architecture.
Modernism, when executed by a skilled practitioner, is like a Vera Wang wedding dress. With Ms. Wang, much of the construction is hidden. Seams are minimal and clean. Materials are of high quality. The silhouette is simple and uncluttered.
Faux historicism, on the other hand, is the fussy dress from the discount shop: ruffles and poufs hide sloppy workmanship as different eras are often mixed together for a visually jarring effect and things stick out where they shouldn’t.
Linda Lewis’s country house near Uxbridge, Ont., despite being christened “Northern Madness” when it was designed by her friend, architect Jerome Markson in 1989, is actually quite sensible, orderly and even calming. It is the Vera Wang of architecture.
“We were trying to build a roof, and a floor,” the 94-year-old retired architect says with a laugh as his wife, Mayta, a retired potter, scolds him and interrupts.
“Linda had a great influence on the design,” she says. “She knew what she wanted; they’d been to a place in Martha’s Vineyard.”
Ms. Lewis picks up the story: “It was extraordinary. One bedroom, but it had a grand room like this, they had a sun porch with a dining room, another sun porch … and then a two-bedroom guest house.”
The three of them recall the house’s origins as Ms. Lewis prepares to part with the property. She has decided, with a very heavy heart, to put the place up for sale.
It’s possible that Ms. Lewis – founding president of the Design Exchange and an interior designer who worked for legendary architect Ron Thom – was influenced by the Markson’s own country house, “The Shack,” which was built in 1969 and was also located near Uxbridge. It, too, had a big living and entertaining room, a tall, screened dining porch, and a simple, well-executed design that didn’t need crown moulding to hide flaws.
It also had a quirky and unique roof, which Ms. Lewis also got: the tall, pinched-at-the-top, pagodalike roof, complete with triangular windows on two sides, was a result of Ms. Lewis being asked about her influences, she remembers. “I’m a huge fan of Finnish design,” she recalls telling Mr. Markson, “and I like Japanese design. I like that earthiness and simplicity, so he said, ‘Okay, I’ll make it a Japanese-Finnish house.’”
And, indeed, a walkabout of the 1,700-square-foot country house reveals many details that can be classified as either. Approach the house after a winding drive through dense forest and the first thing you might notice (after the striking red roof) are the white-painted panels that make up the walls and resemble shoji screens.
Sprint up the front steps to be welcomed inside and it’s that Finn-like low ceiling – just like the kind Viljo Revell used at Toronto’s City Hall – that compresses before it thrusts upward to release the visitor into a palace of light and air. And since there are a few steps to climb to get to the light-filled living room, and a few more to descend into the guest bedrooms or the cozy study, the building reads as a series of pavilions that must be discovered rather than a “what you see is what you get” (read: boring) space.
Borrowing a trick that Frank Lloyd Wright often used (which Wright probably borrowed from the Japanese), there are trellislike “floating” wooden beams that outline openings to other rooms. Not only do these create more human-scaled portals under such a high ceiling, they also divide uses without being domineering. Open transoms above each portal allow light to penetrate into every knotty corner and nook.
And speaking of nooks, the reason the house enjoys so many nooks and level changes is due to two factors. First, the property is more than 20 hectares of mostly wetland and there was only one high-and-bumpy spot on which to build. Ms. Lewis says Mr. Markson thought she and her husband were “absolutely bonkers” when they showed him the site in late 1988.
In addition, the house was raised up and a basement added in case of flooding.
“By then, I was old enough to think of everything,” Mr. Markson says. “The way you have to walk up some steps, we thought a lot about that but I decided to be careful so it wouldn’t leak in the main floor … and I don’t think it ever did.” Ms. Lewis confirms: never a leak in 33 years.
When designing a city retreat, it’s important to consider the different roles the building will be asked to play. Above all, it must give occupants opportunities to quiet their thoughts. Here, one can gaze upon the water from many rooms, or from the deck, or jump in a canoe to quietly paddle. Reading can be done in the sunshiny window seat (Ms. Lewis’s husband requested this) or in the long, narrow study. The study, which is off the kitchen and down a few steps, is so secluded that it’s where Ms. Lewis wrote some of her books.
It must also have space for celebrations and eating. Visitors to Northern Madness have gathered by the cheery, yellow-tiled fireplace in winter and laughed the night away over summer dinners in the long screened-in porch. Like an expertly tailored garment, the house does it all with a quiet, timeless elegance that couldn’t be duplicated more than three decades later.
“This is a marvellous situation,” she says. “It’s not repeatable. You wouldn’t be allowed to [build] this today because it’s on the edge of conservation land.”