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Toronto Real Estate King City backyard balances modernism with cottage-country warmth

Architecture

Modernist looks, cottage-country vibe

Outdoor space created in King City by architect Michael Amantea.

Young family's beautifully designed outdoor space evokes both the drama of elemental nature and the coziness of a tidy room

In spring 2015, Daniel and Stephanie Artenosi finished construction on their dream house, a stately red-brick abode modelled on the heritage homes in their King City neighbourhood, 50 kilometres north of Toronto.

The backyard was considerably less ordered. It was formless and weedy. Its most distinctive feature: a natural slope at the back, offering expansive views onto the neighbour's bungalow. At dusk, floodlights from the adjacent property would illuminate the Artenosis' living room.

The couple hired Michael Amantea, principal of Toronto-based Amantea Architects, to bring elegance and order to the yard – and to make it transcend its surroundings. The Artenosis, who have two young children, wanted dining and swimming amenities but not what Ms. Artenosi, a high-school drama teacher, calls "your typical cabana." (Think: lagoon-shaped pool, unremarkable stone sheds and a shower next to a tree.) They love cooking and entertaining, a proclivity Mr. Artenosi attributes to their Italian heritage. For them, a backyard wouldn't be a backyard unless you could roast marshmallows and bake wood-fired pizzas in it.

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Mr. Amantea created Clearview Pavilion, a suite of streamlined forms made of warm, natural materials. The language is rectilinear modernism, but the vibe is pure cottage country. It is a backyard in which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Neil Young would both feel at ease. Explore it, and you'll find surprising touches: subject rhymes and repeating motifs.

The space makes use of plenty of natural materials.

Mr. Artenosi estimates that the family spent $400,000 on the project, although the bill could have been $100,000 higher had he not installed himself as the general contractor – a terrible idea in theory, although one that paid off handsomely in this case. Most clients who GC their own builds will find themselves overwhelmed and exhausted; what they save in money they'll lose in sanity.

Mr. Artenosi, a municipal and land-use-planning lawyer, is the rare person who can pull this stunt off. He likes learning by doing and has a higher-than-average tolerance for logistical minutiae and manual labour. During the build (which happened, on and off, over the course of a year), he spent nights sourcing materials online and days laying rebar or hauling stone.

"Even though I didn't know what I needed to do," says Mr. Artenosi, "I knew that I needed to do it right. I reached out to people I could trust and followed their advice to the letter."

The homeowners enjoying the yard and pool.

After the pool had been excavated, he oversaw construction on the outdoor kitchen, a concrete L-shaped form which brackets the southwest corner of the yard. The southern flank – conveniently, the part closest to the house – has prep space, an ice box and a beer tap. The western flank includes a herb garden and a three-metre-long firepit, clad on the interior with refractory brick. Mr. Artenosi's dual-chamber pizza oven sits at the hinge.

More than a service bar, the concrete structure demarcates the dining space and offers fireside seating. It's a work of beauty, with its folded, overlapping planes and thin reveals; when completed, it set the standard for the rest of the project. "Anybody who showed up – the landscaper or the guys who built the dining table – could see that this was not just a simple exterior job," says Mr. Amantea. "They would instantly respect the site. Nobody left a coffee cup on top of the concrete."

The rest of the build was equally well-executed, from the glassy zero-edge swimming pool to the Eramosa limestone patio, which slopes at a near-invisible gradient to allow runoff. The stone has swirls of dusky marbling, which resonate with other darker accents, like the flagstone at the pool edge. Near the end of the yard, there's a suite of buildings – storage facility, powder room, change room and mechanical shed – resting 20 centimetres above grade on an Ipe deck.

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The exterior walls are arranged in Douglas-fir slats.

The design responds to obvious constraints. The pavilion runs along the northern edge of the property, against a row of Norway spruce trees and just before the dip in the landscape. (No trees were cut down, although the deck folds around one and another grows, dramatically, from inside the change room.) The height aligns with the roofline of the neighbour's house, enabling privacy and a sense of containment. And the deck rests on helical piers, each placed deliberately so as not to interfere with the below-ground root system.

Most noticeably, the exterior walls are arranged in Douglas-fir slats, which run vertically on the west side and horizontally on the east. For a minimalist, slats are perfect accents: They're elegant, functional and as simple as can be. (They're also fashionable. As regulations around wood construction become less restrictive, Canadian architects are building large-scale slatted beauties, from the new Passive House Factory in Pemberton, B.C., to the Audain Art Museum in nearby Whistler.) The slatted, linear motif appears elsewhere in the yard, including in the trellis above the custom dining table and in the lawn stones, which are arranged in a striped pattern reminiscent of a crosswalk.

LED lights in the trellis illuminate the dining area.

For an outdoor space, the Clearview Pavilion is amazingly tidy, the result of a disciplined architectural program and a conceptually simple palette: fire, water and stone. The site evokes the drama of elemental nature and the sense of domestic well-being afforded by a tidy room.

At night, it has a hearth-like coziness. Outdoor spaces are difficult to light: Bollards are industrial and cold, and floodlights are obnoxious. Instead, Mr. Amantea set narrow LED bands into the slats on the overhead trellis, illuminating the table. He placed ambient up lights and down lights inside the pavilion, transforming each shed into a massive beacon. On weekends, these architectural lanterns burn late, glowing, when the wood has run out and the guests have left, like the last coals in the firepit.


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