A Whiter Shade of Pale

PROJECT House 60, Toronto, Ontario
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Carlyle Routh

Located in Cedarvale, a midtown residential district in Toronto, this single-family residence on a deep lot stands unique amidst its neighbouring red brick pitched-roof homes from the 1950s postwar era. In fact, House 60 was, prior to its reinvention, one of these very same unremarkable structures until owners Allison and Stephen Granovsky–an interior designer and retail consultant, respectively–commissioned architecture/landscape architecture firm gh3 to transform the two-storey house into what is essentially an übermodern loft for themselves and their three children.

In keeping with the firm’s adherence to first principles of sustainability, the choice was made to substantially renovate and augment rather than start afresh, as the existing house was considered “as a material resource to be reused rather than abandoned.” Led by gh3 partner Pat Hanson, the project involved a total gutting of the interior along with additions to the front and back of the house. New portions of the house were clad in black stucco, while the existing masonry portions were painted to match. Operable skylights in the flat roof admit greater amounts of natural light and encourage passive ventilation, while a brand-new high-performance glass curtain wall utilizing anodized black aluminum framing forms the fully glazed rear elevation. On the front elevation, the one-storey glass wall allows views from the street into the house right through to the back garden, serving as a “modern-day front porch, reconnecting the building with its site and the city,” according to Hanson.

The resulting design is very logical and straightforward. Exemplifying the Corbusian ideology of the house as a machine for living in, the functionality and extreme efficiency of the open plan permits plenty of natural daylight into all interior spaces, and an effortless circulation flow. What initially appears to be two square stacked floor plates actually offers more sectional dynamic than initially expected. Located where the previous garage used to be, entry into the house is essentially slab on grade, which continues through the foyer to the high-ceilinged generous galley kitchen that opens onto a concrete patio and the back garden. The bulk of the ground-floor living space is raised a few steps up, reducing the ceiling height to nine feet: here, living, dining and family room functions are sequentially ordered in one large, open space.

Further spatial layering occurs with a double-height condition created at the rear of the house, adjacent to the fully glazed curtain wall. The second-floor master bedroom and office are pulled five feet away from the wall, creating a two-storey shaft of space. Despite this separation, full-height interior windows in both of these rooms prevent the younger children from plummeting to the ground below while still allowing views outdoors to the back garden, swimming pool, and the neighbouring school playground. Another practical benefit is that auditory and olfactory isolation from the rest of the house is maintained.

The house is a study in contrasts, between light and dark, solid and void. It eschews traditional notions of domesticity with its open plan, a restrained colour palette of black and white, and a refreshing absence of ornament. On the exterior, the dark solidity of the black stucco cladding contrasts with the open transparency of the glass walls, particularly on the rear north-facing elevation. And on the interior, the austere tone is consistently maintained: ebony-stained engineered hardwood floors in the principal living spaces anchor a white-on-white composition of ceiling, walls and drapery.

Thematic consistency is echoed in the kitchen and bathrooms. An acid-stained concrete floor continues from the front entry foyer all the way through to the linear kitchen; the concrete swath continues outdoors to the back patio. Stainless steel appliances are matched by stainless steel countertops and a lower bank of cabinets, while upper cabinets are sheathed in a white lacquer finish. In the bathrooms, one finds, predictably, white fixtures, stainless hardware, and white Carrera marble veined with subtle streaks of grey.

One obvious concession to current trends in interior design is a superscaled monochromatic damask floral pattern applied to the living room wall and to the glazed separation between the kitchen nook and the family room. All this white could seem unrelenting, but the unusual absence of colour optimally showcases carefully curated interior furnishings, and more importantly, provides a neutral backdrop against which the vibrant energy and frenetic activity of a busy young family plays out.

Storage space is remarkably well considered and generous, an increasing necessity in an age defined by rampant consumerism and acquisition. These storage areas are subtly incorporated–along with service zones–into the thickened wall that forms the organizing axis dividing the on-grade entry foyer and kitchen from the primary living spaces a few steps up. Hidden storage is discreetly integrated into the design such that it doesn’t read as a clumsy agglomeration of closet doors. Instead, partial storage is integrated into the same wall containing the living-room fireplace, and further along this axis, a pantry is tucked behind cabinetry in the kitchen. And along the west wall of the family room, full-height pivoting wall panels conceal cabinets housing the television and other items when not in use.

Upstairs, wardrobe and dressing-room storage is equally considered. Ample closet space is provided in the children’s bedrooms, and Stephen has claimed the entire wall of closets in the master bedroom. Just off the master bathroom, Allison is left to luxuriate in a sizeable dressing room equipped off with all manner of built-in closets and wardrobe storage. And of course, the basement’s recreation and utility rooms always end up being handy spaces to accommodate storage overflow.

The restrained minimalism and stark beauty of House 60 evokes a bit of the highly stylized art-directed quality of the domestic sets created for memorable films such as Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. While the former is essentially a critique of Modernism and postwar consumerism, part of the reason the film has achieved cult status over the past 50-plus years is precisely because of the exquisite visual impact delivered through the brilliant set design of the fictional Villa Arpel. Similarly, House 60 achieves occasional flashes of brilliance, offering a young family an ideal home environment in which to grow. CA

Client Allison and Stephen Granovsky
Architect Team Pat Hanson, Diana Gerrard, Liza Stiff, Raymond Chow, Vivian Chin
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Limited
Mechanical Basciano Inc.
Electrical gh3
Landscape gh3
Interiors gh3 with Allison Granovsky
Contractor Blue Springs Construction
Area 3,600 ft2
Budget $800,000
Completion October 2008