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architecture

Letting loose with home design

The Toronto home of architects Jennifer Turner and Martin Davidson.

Architect Jennifer Turner's renovation of her century-old house in Dufferin Grove shows what beauty can result from taking your time and not being rigid

The big steps of stone don't run straight. These flamed black granite slabs ascend to Jennifer Turner's front door, flat and matte with perfectly squared corners, but they take a bit of a left turn on the way. Why?

"There were a lot of roots," said Ms. Turner, an architect, with a laugh and a wave of the arm. "This guy" – an ancient maple – "had spread out everywhere, so we had to shift the stones over a bit and add one more. There was an idea of how many steps there would be, and where they would be, but that's not quite how it ended up."

There's a lesson there, and it returns throughout Ms. Turner's renovation of this century-old house in Dufferin Grove: that beauty can come by taking some time and leaving things a bit loose. It's a valuable point these days, when popular ideas of "modern design" seem to demand a home that's utterly spare and often soulless.

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Ms. Turner, who has run her own practice in Toronto since 1999, sees that lesson reinforced daily in her garden. Through nearly two decades in the house with her husband and son, she has gradually remade its lawns with an assortment of Japanese iris, bleeding heart, spiderwort and many other species, each of them on its own rhythm. "In gardening, everything is always a bit loose," she argued. "You can create a structure, but it still has a mind of its own. It's a little messy. And I think architecture needs that."

Ms. Turner's work on the house takes a loose approach, although it is not what most people would call messy. (As we tour the house, she is planning to head back to her garden to hunt slugs with tweezers.) Instead, it retains some original detail – a carved banister, coved ceilings – while removing a few walls and adding new touches.

While the home’s design reflects the couple’s taste for the spare, there are pops of colour throughout the house.

To some degree, the design reflects contemporary architects' taste for the spare and the monochrome. Which makes sense: This is a double-architect house. Ms. Turner's husband is Martin Davidson, a partner at Diamond Schmitt Architects. So, unsurprisingly, they've modified the cut-up layout of the house. It sits on a corner lot and has a centre-hall plan; as you enter, the living room is to the right, once a set of three rooms that are now opened up and painted white – "This is a comfortable place for us," Ms. Turner said. "It brings in the light to an amazing degree." Mr. Davidson helped build the black steel fireplace surround.

But the hall, the kitchen and dining room are radically colourful. The dining room walls are a yellowish-green, while reddish-brown jatoba flooring adds warmth; in the kitchen, the end wall wears a coat of teal-green, providing a counterpoint to a pale photograph from Edward Burtynsky's Quarries series. The ceiling, meanwhile is a deep-red that recalls Frank Lloyd Wright's favorite colour. Yes, the ceiling; while most interiors go with the default white, Ms. Turner has done the opposite.

And, as she argues, correctly, that move changes everything. The kitchen's cool slate floors and countertop are transformed by that one coloured surface. So, too, are the marble Saarien table and white, fibreglass Eames chairs in the adjacent dining area. It's a collection of orthodox modernist good taste, made homey.

The slate countertops in the kitchen offset the bold deep-red ceiling.

But the idea that the modern house was a white box involves a misunderstanding of history. Even some of the architects who defined the so-called international style, such as Walter Gropius, designed and lived in homes full of colour, detail and eclectic objects. While moving away from the kitsch of 19th-century bourgeois European dwellings, they did not put colour and texture off limits. "I think those ideas have mutated over time," Ms. Turner said on the current fashion for minimalism. She is not opposed to that – she describes a recent house project as "a study in greys," but "this," she says, "is where I want to live."

The kitchen is where the architect has made the biggest impact on the house, by building a side addition in 2009. "The main thing for us was to have this connection to the outside," Ms. Turner explained, "and have this room we can extend our life into."

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This is where architecture meets the garden. Wood-framed sliding doors line two sides of the room, which Ms. Turner calls a pavilion; and they open into a private zone of the garden where the family hangs out, barbecues and eats. (The barbecue is tucked off to one side, out of sight.)

One of the gardens, located to the side, is surrounded by an L-shaped brick wall, making the enclosed area a comfortable outdoor room.

It's clear that Ms. Turner's passion for the place is strongest in the garden. She designed the fountain, made of poured-in-place concrete and weathering steel, to provide a constant burble of water; rainwater, meanwile, runs down rain chains, on the edge of the house, instead of downspouts. "It creates these beautiful ice sculptures in the winter," she said. And at the far end of the garden, a group of bamboo pushes unruly toward the sky.

But in between is a forceful architectural gesture. In a skillful design move, Ms. Turner has enclosed this side garden area with a finely detailed, L-shaped brick wall; it defines a comfortable outdoor room. And that brick is familiar if you look at it: It's a purplish hue and glimmers a bit in the light. It's a variety called ironspot, which is popular in contemporary modernist buildings. Mr. Davidson helped bring it to Toronto when Diamond Schmitt chose the brick for the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. But here, it's a little bit uneven, even messy.

Ms. Turner explains: These bricks are seconds, rejects from the production line. "These wouldn't meet the standard," she said. "There's too much variation – here a little more red, here a little more blue.

"But I like them a lot."

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