“This young man is going far,” said the legend, Frank Lloyd Wright, of James Strutt in the late 1940s.
Wright was known to be sparing with praise. Unless, of course, it was about his own work or the work of his student-disciples at Taliesin. So, to allow this to pass from his god-like lips about a lowly University of Toronto student was telling indeed.
James William Strutt (1924-2008) did go far in architecture. Tall, lean and with a long, handsome face topped by a pile of curly black hair, the Pembroke, Ont.-born son of an electrical engineer took the woodsy, Wrightian concept of marrying a building to its site and, surprisingly, mixed it with the space-age geometries that sprang from the fertile mind of Buckminster Fuller to produce an architecture unlike anything seen in Canada.
“He did over 500 projects in his lifetime, which is more than Frank Lloyd Wright did,” says Strutt Foundation managing director Titania Truesdale, an architect who was mentored by Mr. Strutt during his later years. “They’re not all here: They’re in Japan, they’re in South America, they’re in Europe, they’re in Turks and Caicos; he was not limited to Canada, yet no one knows his name.
“We’re trying to change that.”
Tours of the Strutt family home, which began last month, may do the trick. After expropriation by the National Capital Commission in 2010 – the home sat on land Gatineau Park wanted to “repatriate” in order to protect its ecosystem – a demolition order, a long period of abandonment (during which there were break-ins by vandals), the innovative 1956 home on the Eardley Escarpment in the Gatineau Hills outside of Ottawa is finally receiving some TLC. The love and care comes after a change of heart resulted in a heritage designation, a request for information by the NCC and, finally, awarding the restoration of the home to the Strutt Foundation.
As sublime and delicately composed as anything by Arthur Erickson or Ron Thom, the crown-shaped, curtain-walled home uses as little material as possible to create its interlocking, rhombus-shaped rooms and undulating roof of interconnected shells – each a gently curving hyperbolic paraboloid – that rest gently on a central, cinderblock core. “The amount of wood in this house is between 25- to 33-per cent of what an average house of this size would be,” Ms. Truesdale says of the roughly 1,800-square-foot residence, “so, it’s so light that we can jack it up with a couple of bottle jacks, and we do; we’re in the process of stabilizing the pilotis.”
Ironically, her tiny team of interns, interested contractors and minuscule budget (while a Getty Grant was awarded in 2015, conservation efforts will require some deep-pocketed corporate sponsors) is on par with the resources used by Mr. Strutt some 61 years ago, when $15,000, one full-time site foreman/carpenter, one part-time contractor and the architect and a few friends got the home built in approximately six weeks.
As well as serving a family of six for more than five decades, the Strutt home would play host to cocktail parties that honoured the world’s architectural elite while passing through the nation’s capital (Alvar Aalto stayed here and Bucky Fuller was a frequent guest), see Pierre Trudeau dive into its hexagonal pool and, most importantly, inspire future architects who attended Mr. Strutt’s onsite lectures – he taught at Carleton University from 1969 to 1986 – with its passive solar features. Indeed, Mr. Strutt’s wife, Audrey, once told Ms. Truesdale that, even during harsh Ottawa winters, the furnace would shut off at 10 a.m. and not click back on again until 7 p.m.; it helps, of course, that the home had extruded Styrofoam insulation – then an untested industrial material – sandwiched between the thin ceiling and roof structures, between the floor joists and between concrete wall panels.
And about those wall panels: Just like the home’s frameless windows and doors, they were tucked into channels rabbited directly into the western red-cedar frame. The home, Ms. Truesdale says, is “like a piece of furniture; all the parts were just put together.” These light-as-a-creampuff, mostly glass walls are made possible by the first-in-Canada “hypar” roof, which is held up, mostly, by the cinderblock core. This core, as well as containing a wide open-pit fireplace with a triangular hearth, serves to separate public areas from private.
A walk through the house, today, displays a duality. One can see the ravages caused by those few years of neglect – “two houses can be sitting side by side in the same environment and, in three years, if one’s been lived in everything’s fine, the other one, if it’s been vacant, nature just reclaims it,” Ms. Truesdale laments – as well as the incredible, innovative workmanship that still holds up.
For example, the extremely Wrightian, Strutt-designed built-in furniture, which takes advantage of tight spaces to create cozy cubbies and spaces for books, will look good-as-new with a very light touch and crisp upholstery. And, after a few Dutchman repairs in water-damaged areas, the oxblood-coloured, linoleum flooring (designed for battleships) can be easily repolished. Some features in the home’s small kitchen, such as Mrs. Strutt’s serving counter and a lowered, slatted ceiling, will need full reconstruction, however.
Once the home is ready, pieces of original furniture will return, along with scans of the Strutts’ art collection, including 3-D-printed representations of sculpture.
And then, get it occupied: “It is a home, it has to be treated as such, it has to have some sort of regular in-and-out pattern,” she explains. “The worse thing that happens to wood-framed houses is when they’re turned into museums and then, 50 years later, they’re closed and torn down because the small group that was running it – it’s deteriorated in front of their eyes.” To that end, she suggests the house could provide accommodation to visiting university chairs, and then, during summers, switch to a place for workshops and public tours.
One hopes this comes together quickly: While there are plenty of books about Mr. Wright on the shelves, Ms. Truesdale has an authorized biography of Mr. Strutt to finish.
While tours of the Strutt home are now available, they must be arranged individually. Please fill out the form at struttfoundation.ca/home/contact to request a tour.