Ideally, a well-constructed contemporary house designed for Toronto’s climate will be snug in the cold, overcast time of year and breezily open to the outdoors during the warm months – a dwelling, that is, for all seasons.
But I occasionally come across an attractive new residence that appears to have been crafted chiefly with winter in mind. The windows are not large, and wholly glazed walls are few. The interior is comfortably dim, and the living room furnishings are gathered around a hearth situated beneath a ceiling that isn’t too tall. Though I don’t live in one of them, I know such “winter houses” can work very well – and they are surely appropriate for the weather we have here during most of each year.
By way of contrast: a new dwelling by the talented Toronto designers Nelson Kwong and Neal Prabhu (partners in nkArchitect), in the sedate, shady Humewood neighbourhood. It’s very much a “summer house.” In both its strong plan and elegantly streamlined details, the two-storey, 2,900-square-foot place is a modernist hymn to light, fresh air and openness to tame urban nature.
The glass walls at the rear of the open-plan main floor, for example, give onto a spacious deck and deep backyard with a pool, and they wrap around an outdoor dining room adjacent to the kitchen. The ceiling over the living room area is double height, and light from the sky cascades through high windows to the oak floor below. The tone of this public part of the house, with its high ceilings and expansive spaces, is casually alert, sensuous without being sentimental, fresh.
The interior wall opposite the glazed openings onto the deck has been painted in an intense aquamarine, to echo the blue lining of the swimming pool and thus bring the outside in. If intimacy is wanted – the living room ensemble of furnishings is large and welcoming to sizeable groups of people – this wall slides away to reveal a comfortable nook focused on a small firebox and, standing next to it, a high-powered telescope. (One of the two homeowners is an enthusiastic amateur astronomer.)
The professional couple who live here love to entertain on a capacious scale, and the house Mr. Kwong and Mr. Prabhu has given them reflects the couple’s tastes in hospitality. In the basement (along with a deluxe workout room) is the most generously outfitted screening room I have ever seen in a private residence this side of Sunset Boulevard – a place for the couple to indulge their passion for movies, and yet another sociable spot for sharing the things they appreciate with their broad circle of friends.
The upper level of the house features three modestly scaled bedrooms arrayed around the atrium that opens to the living room area below. This storey is reached by way of a staircase neatly tucked out of sight behind a high wall.
Standing in the main-floor space, you probably would not notice that the flight of steps is there. Architects of multi-storey dwellings sometimes seem stymied by the old problem of how best to insert a house’s vertical connection into a relentlessly horizontal composition, which they often solve by making the inevitable staircase important and imposing. This approach occasionally works. But Mr. Kwong and Mr. Prabhu here offer a different solution, by simply making the connection disappear altogether. The result is a clear sweep of space on the main floor, uninterrupted by the usual clutter of a staircase.
The abstract, cubist geometry of the streetside façade mirrors the clean-lined modernism of the interior. Boxy volumes defined by black stucco and ashen brick have been stacked up and accented with wooden trim, generating a firm, urbane architectural statement that doesn’t make a great fuss about itself. Instead of the usual garage out front, there is a simple carport. It’s a light touch, reminiscent of mid-century residential design in relaxed, sunny climes, and it reinforces the sense of the whole project as a delightful summer pavilion in the urban forest.