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the architourist

Houses on Melbourne Ave., Parkdale by Batay-Csorba Architects and developer Adam Baguley.

'People don't want the porch culture any more,' Andrew Batay-Csorba says. So what best to take its place?

The old adage "don't judge a book by its cover" can – and should – be applied to many things.

In architecture however, it's difficult, since our collective experience is often of the façade alone. That's why Heritage Conservation Districts strive to preserve only the public faces of buildings.

But, in these pages, any analysis of a building should go much deeper. It should paint, with word-pictures, what life is like inside: How does it make us feel; what's the quality of light; how does one move through it; what do surfaces feel like to the touch? It should convey emotion and explain motivation.

So, it's with much regret I present this fresh and exciting Parkdale project by Batay-Csorba Architects and developer Adam Baguley, because I cannot get past the façade.

Two wooden screens adorn the book-matched pair of duplexes.

Deceptively simple, the two wooden screens that adorn the book-matched pair of duplexes on Melbourne Avenue are so delightful, so thoughtful – part bespoke sculpture, part funhouse mirror – I could use up my allotted space analyzing only them (I'll try not to).

The idea, Andrew Batay-Csorba says, came about when considering past residential projects, where the semi-public space at the front of houses was usually neglected. "We find in the majority of projects we do, the front balconies don't get used, ever," he says with a laugh. "I find people don't want the porch culture any more; everything is private, inside."

However, while the bottom unit of each duplex would benefit from a graffiti-covered, garden-apartment-style walled courtyard, the upper units would need balconies. So, how to nudge folks to actually use them?

Light filtering into one of the living spaces.

Quickly, the idea of screens came to mind for Mr. Batay-Csorba and his wife/business partner, Jodi Batay-Csorba. But since the project would be surrounded by the carved sandstone, intricate woodwork, stained glass and complex masonry of Victorian-era Parkdale, any design would have to approach that bar. The couple decided the two screens would display "some type of craft" so that it became "our addition to the neighbourhood."

Enter the camel, giraffe, crocodile, panther and raccoon. Say what? Although abstracted, that's what's hiding in the screens and might turn up depending on a combination of factors, such as the angle of sunlight, the time of year or one's particular point of view on the street.

"We wanted to do something that engaged with the people in the neighbourhood," Mr. Batay-Csorba explains, "so we ended up falling into cloud-watching as a great analogy of people projecting their own ideas onto abstract [shapes] and as a game that you play, too." They also were thinking of those ribbed, plastic children's "picture-toys" that come in cereal boxes – the kind that flip between two or three images as they are tilted. Called "lenticular images," the wooden screens would be similar to that: "Wouldn't it be great if people are walking by and they see one thing, and then it changes?"

Rear exterior spaces.

The result is wonderful: playful, ever-changing screens by day and warm, architectural jack-o-lanterns at night, done only with assorted bits of pine that do nothing more than change angle and spacing. And thankfully, since it takes some imagination and effort to "see" the animals, they exist without kitsch, which was a concern for the couple.

It should be noted, too, that each façade's overall proportion – the bottom third in red brick and the top two-thirds comprising of screen and hints of angled, raised-seam metal roof – pays tribute to the heritage bay-and-gable homes on the street. Only peeks of kaleidoscopic graffiti by Jimmy Chiale betray their conservative manners.

A skylight with graffiti-adorned walls brings light onto the kitchen island.

That graffiti is carried inside. In the upper two-storey unit of each home, there is a "centre void" with a skylight that carries light past the fourth floor down to the kitchen island on the third; the walls of this wide tunnel are adorned with the aerosol-art of Mr. Chiale (a little slice of this graffiti can even be spied from the bathroom).

Two metal X-braces that help hold up the fourth floor hug the kitchen island on each side and the backsplash sports a bold grid-pattern via black grout behind big white tiles. Add to that the industrial diamond-plate stairs and the overall effect is rather 1980s-retro, which is refreshing in light of all the retro-sixties interiors since the television show Mad Men struck it big.

X-braces on either side of the kitchen island hold up the fourth floor.

The ceiling further contributes to the geometric, eighties theme by enhancing the regular joist pattern with added – and structurally unnecessary – bit of wood; these also mimic the exterior screen just beyond the balcony doors.

Speaking of which (sorry, can't help myself), when sunlight hits those screens and slowly crawls into the space, it's an architectural moment that touches the heart. It transforms the mundane into light-show magic and makes leaving the room next to impossible.

Light filtering through wooden screens enlivens interior spaces.

Overall, there's a level of thought and craftsmanship here not found in other developments. It's almost as if, Mr. Batay-Csorba offers, his client was building both homes for himself. Perhaps that's why the two houses, in their short lives (they were completed this past autumn) have been offered as rentals, but now one is for sale and the fate of the other is up in the air.

This is owing to his "anxiety," Mr. Baguley laughs: "We had a few showings, but then I just got kind of nervous that someone was going to move in and it's not going to look new any more, so I'm thinking the only way is if somebody moves in and it's their house."