There is a rhythm to them. A few poke out reluctantly, others confidently eat up half the backyard; some are glassy, others wrapped in cheap aluminum siding. And, a rhythm of eras: there, definitely a 1970s add-on, while over here is one from the 1990s … two houses up and it’s a strikingly modern addition that could not have been designed in any other decade than the 2010s.
The rear additions in the Casa Loma neighbourhood of Toronto are so plentiful – and intriguing – that homeowner Gaby Aviad muses about penning a coffee table book about the architectural excess that can only happen in backyards.
“I’m always dying to know what the backs of people’s houses look like,” the marketing specialist who studied architecture says with a laugh. “Especially in neighbourhoods like this where, recently this became a Heritage Conservation District, so really from now on there shouldn’t be much change in the [front façade] appearances.
“I just think it’s interesting.”
It is indeed. And most interesting is Ms. Aviad’s own, recently completed addition, which architect Francesco Martire of Large [Medium] Design Office Inc. expertly grafted onto century-old brick; it’s bold, it’s black, it’s angular, and it ever-so-gently wraps itself onto the laneway wall so that backyard barbecue guests get a visual reward as they shout their salutations.
“You get a bit of hint of what is to come,” Ms. Aviad says.
What came before was a very tired 1980s addition, she continues, that was so poorly built that “when we stepped on the floor of the kitchen, we could feel the backs of the raccoons underneath our feet … they would vibrate if you stopped moving for a moment; it was also really, really cold.”
Ms. Aviad and her husband (and eventually their two daughters) lived with trash pandas underfoot for almost a decade until a phone call was placed to Mr. Martire. Ms. Aviad and Mr. Martire, you see, had worked together at Teeple Architects and had become close, so when Mr. Martire started his own firm in 2012 with wife/interior designer Nadia Cannataro, Ms. Aviad kept tabs on their progress. By 2017, she was ready to entrust her old friend with a slightly larger – and raccoon free – addition that incorporated a sleek new kitchen with tons of storage, and, above, an art studio for the girls.
Mr. Martire didn’t disappoint: with minor tweaking, his first set of drawings hit the mark.
The initial idea, the architect says, was always to be all black, to be “one volume, sculpted, and pieces ‘chipped away’ from it to get the final shape.” Indeed, it looks as if a massive boulder of raw onyx was airdropped onto the site and then chiseled away; even the end-caps on either side of the wide, Miesian stair read as rock.
Venturing inside, the first thing that strikes the first-time visitor is the old, pockmarked-and-stained, (formerly) exterior brick as “the vestige of where the old elevation was,” the affable architect explains, “and there are just these new apertures from old to new, and the connector piece becomes the kitchen.”
It’s quite the kitchen. Expertly crafted by Gibson Greenwood, grain pattern effortlessly leaps from door to door, cookbook – and wine-storage tuck away neatly, and what was formerly a doorway is now a countertop pass-through into the formal dining room. Above the informal dining area – which includes a banquette by the same millworker – is one feature that was tweaked a fair bit. What began as the “Towering Cabinet of Curiosities,” which would’ve reached far up into the void on the second floor, through a series of revisions became the “Sculptural Cabinet of Curiosities,” Mr. Martire says with a laugh. Interestingly, to avoid the dust that almost never gets cleaned on high surfaces, the wall was angled out to meet the top of the shelf; this also echoes the geometries of the sculpting outside and trapezoidal window-shapes.
Because the couple spends a lot of time in the kitchen, it was decided that the space above would make more sense as an art room/playroom than as a bedroom. This way, Ms. Aviad says, the girls can “make a huge mess and to do their thing” while still connected to her, aurally, via the opening. The angled balcony off the art room also means mom or dad can sip wine to a soundtrack of birdsong while the girls giggle and throw paint around. “And during the pandemic we were home all the time, so having some amount of normalcy with the way the [ground floor] looked when you came home was beautiful.”
What is also beautiful are all of the little details Mr. Martire, Ms. Cannataro and contractor Roman Lysiak of Catalyst Design Build (a U of T classmate and friend of Mr. Martire’s) obsessed over. To name just a few: while exterior, wooden windows are delicate – trimmed with the thinnest of aluminum – interior former windows (now openings) are boldly outlined in thick, glossy-white wood and underlined with chunky sills (one of which near the dining area is so thick the girls often set up pillows to create a perch), and set into a recessed black field; and, in the sunshine yellow powder room (the girls selected the tile), a thin sliver of mirror completes the shape of the window-opening.
Overall, it’s a skillful, delightful addition that, since it’s in a backyard, can flex its bold, black muscles without offending the more conservative members of the neighbourhood.
And because it was between friends, everything went as smoothly as polished stone: “Everybody said ‘you are not going to find a contractor who is 100-per-cent honest with you, you will have bumps along the way, things will change significantly, you will have fights with your husband, you will hate your life while you live in your house,’” Ms. Aviad says with a laugh. “And none of those things happened.”
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