The National Post - At Home with Modernism
At home with modernism
By Martha Uniacke Breen
Special to The National Post
All too often, people who love the traditional look of Toronto’s established neighbourhoods tend to view Modernist renovations (or worse, new builds) with fear and loathing.
But, done with as much sensitivity as this one, by TongTong principal designer John Tong, for a young family in Riverdale, even the most vocal opponents of the style might be persuaded to make peace with it. With projects like Toronto’s Drake Hotel and Prince Edward County’s Drake Devonshire Inn, Tong and his firm have developed an admirable reputation for their skill at blending the historical context of older buildings, while bringing them right into the present moment.
A huge part of central Toronto’s existing residential stock was built during a fever of expansion during the first two decades of the twentieth century, creating a certain uniformity to many neighbourhoods that some of us associate with “hominess.” Loss of a wonderful old house (or any other vintage structure) understandably produces a visceral trauma. But is it always preferable to rescue and preserve these houses – especially since family life in 1920 was considerably different than it is today?
Heritage areas such as Cabbagetown, Draper Street, or Blythwood west of Mount Pleasant unquestionably have a charm worth preserving. But more often, a much broader mix of time periods, or undistinguished 1920s homes that are ready for updating, is the norm. As Tong says, “If you’re going to ‘pause’ the design at a particular [time] point, how do you decide which point to pause it at?”
The street this house stands on is a perfect example. The dominant design, like much of Riverdale, is early Arts & Crafts-style – two- and three-storey homes with front porches, peaked gables and second-floor bay windows. But there’s a pretty Victorian farmhouse right next door, and a designated heritage house stands across the street. The owners loved the street and the orientation of this home, whose upper storeys overlook a ravine and, on a clear day, the lake far in the distance. It seemed right for the Modernist update they envisioned.
But when Tong first saw the house, he wasn’t quite as sold. “He almost tried to talk us out of buying it,” the homeowner laughs. While it wasn’t in terrible condition, Tong could see that there was an extensive amount of structural work ahead before the aesthetics could even begin: a sagging foundation needed strengthening and straightening, and it was smaller and narrower than the family needed. And – as is almost always the case once you start dissecting an old house – there were a number of surprises hidden in the walls.
Today, with a rather nightmarish construction process finally completed, what’s perhaps most striking is how comfortably it sits among the houses on the street. The basic elements of peaked gable, uniform setback and front lawn, and even secondary elements like the upper bay window and front porch, were either retained or skillfully alluded to. It’s modern, but it’s lost none of its original “hominess.”
A good neighbour
The line of the front elevation, set back and raised a few steps, matches its neighbours on either side; but in place of a lawn, the front garden is lined with pavers framed by wooden bleachers at each end, with a carefully placed young Japanese maple tree and other plantings at the front for privacy. “We wanted a place where the kids could play sports and hang out,” says Tong.
The “idea” of a front porch is suggested by a zinc-panelled awning mounted straight across the front, over a window-and-front-door composition of sandblasted glass surrounding a central square of clear glass. For all its cool, graphic simplicity, it still somehow looks remarkably like a front porch.
The same visual trick occurs on the upper two storeys, where the original bay was replaced by a wider flat window next to a narrower one, in the same proportions as the original windows. And the top-floor gable is a huge glass triangle, framed in the same zinc panels as the awning.
Having met the principle of harmony, if not necessarily uniformity, with the rest of the street, the design kicks over its traces as soon as you open the door. The main floor consists of a single open space in a tactile, monochromatic palette of zinc, steel, wood and stone, stretching all the way back to another broad window-wall overlooking a big, mature Norway maple at the foot of the garden. One long side wall is taken up with a swath of grey-stained oak cabinets that further pulls the room together. The arrangement allows the succession of dining, kitchen and living areas to flow seamlessly into each other, making the space feel much larger than it really is.
The kitchen is the figurative and literal centre of the home, set off by a large concrete-topped island. Here, the wall cabinetry is interrupted by a long, translucent window panel set above the rear counter that takes advantage of a technicality in zoning laws: you can replace an existing side window with another that has the same area, but it needn’t be the same shape – so Tong made it flatter and wider, creating a glowing inset between cabinets and work surface.
Open to possibility
One of the many incidental delights throughout the house is a colourful flash of bright life, built into the outer side of the stairwell. “When the reno was underway, my son asked if we would be putting in an aquarium in the design; it just seemed like a natural idea to him,” the owner laughs. “So we decided, why not?”
And indeed, the aquarium’s glass sides form an integral component of the “light column,” as Tong describes the staircase. Lit by big skylights set in the roof three storeys above, the stairway features open risers and glass banisters, but there’s another design trick that helps transfer light all through the centre of the house, seen only when you ascend to the second floor.
“We call this the ‘bridge,’” says Tong, and it’s a fitting metaphor for the second floor hallway, connecting the master bedroom at the back with a comfortable home office in the front. What makes it bridge-like, along with its long, slim shape, is a narrow slot set in the floor at the inner wall, between another glass railing and a zinc-lined wall.
The top-floor boys’ rooms each have a few neat subtleties of their own. The front bedroom, under slanted eaves, is dominated by that big triangular window that overlooks the street; fitted with a custom-shaped triangular blind that rises, using a remote control device, from a slot in the base, it can be adjusted from fully open to completely enclosed, for privacy or to temper the south-facing sunlight.
The other bedroom features an intriguing variation on the standard shed dormer: the roof inset slants up instead of down, creating a valley where it meets the main roof. It allows for a bigger window that perfectly frames the branches and leaves of the maple in the backyard. In summer, says the owner, it’s like sleeping in a treehouse.
In Toronto, it’s not uncommon for local residents to feel nervousness, and even open opposition, when large-scale Modernist renovations arise in their midst, and this house was no exception. But in the end, says the owner with some relief, all but the most recalcitrant observers came to appreciate it.
And perhaps the greatest success of the design is the way it fully embraces 21st-century comfort and priorities – without compromise, and without giving up anything we (and the neighbours too) love about old family houses.
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