Acadian Rhythm

PROJECT NB20¿5, Grande-Anse, New Brunswick
ARCHITECT YH2 (Yiacouvakis Hamelin architectes)
TEXT John Leroux

When Nikolaus Pevsner made his famous statement several generations ago that “a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture,” his subtext was as much about class structure as it was about design. At that time, many considered the pinnacle of Canadian residential architecture to be ornate mansions in Toronto and Montreal that were devoted to historic European revival styles. Not much on the east coast would have been included, let alone the traditional wood-frame houses of New Brunswick’s Acadian peninsula.

But it’s no secret that this presumption has lost its lustre, as contemporary insight understands that the simple and less ostentatious vernacular often tells a deeper tale. In a region of New Brunswick that is culturally rich but still architecturally cautious, a striking example of contemporary design in the village of Grande-Anse has taken its formal inspiration from deep Acadian roots.

Completed in 2007, the combined house/studio belonging to Jocelyn Jean and Rose-Mai Roy sits in a pine forest high atop a sheer rocky cliff overlooking the Bay of Chaleur. While their house is far from traditional, there is a definite relationship and spiritual connection to the uncomplicated forms and orderly spaces of the Acadian vernacular.

This heritage is perfectly visible in the nearby Village Historique Acadien, a collection of historic structures where traditional gabled homes are essentially interchangeable with barns and service buildings in their appearance and execution. Rarely more than a straightforward gabled box covered on all surfaces with weathered wood shingles or rough boards, these structures have no roof overhang or decorative trim. Compared to their English counterparts, they are unadorned to the highest degree. However, like the restraint evident in a traditional Japanese tea house, we now see the beauty and charm of this historical minimalism–even though it articulates the hardship and material poverty of the Acadians that persisted until not very long ago.

With considerable input from the owners, the new house in Grande-Anse was designed by Marie-Claude Hamelin and Loukas Yiacouvakis of the Montreal architectural firm YH2 (Yiacouvakis Hamelin architectes). The dwelling is a two-storey L-shaped structure called NB20°5 in honour of the 20.5-degree angle formed by the intersection of the house’s two wings.

Taking an approach similar to the magnificent 1855 Robin Shed–a well-known loft-like building that once serviced the local cod fishery and which is preserved within the Village Historique Acadien in Rivière-du-Nord–the NB20°5 house is made of unpretentious gabled volumes with no overhangs, and is clad throughout by a single economical material. Dispensing with the standard wood skin, the new house features galvanized steel sheets as cladding for both the roof and walls. It expresses its kindred spirit to the Robin Shed mostly through its similar use of large wooden shutters to protect the window and door openings when the building is not in use. Like a frontier garrison, the hinged shutters and sliding barn doors are solid planes of golden stained cedar that close up tight in the winter for security, while creating a lively counterpoint to the grey metal façade during the occupied months.

Entered through its midpoint, the house is equally divided into two halves, with the couple’s living area at one end and Jean’s spacious painting studio at the other. While the living component is efficient and rigorously designed, the studio portion is more daring and spacious. Jean is a celebrated Canadian painter who moved to Quebec in 1970 from New Brunswick. He has taught at a number of Montreal university art departments since 1979, and his work belongs to such prestigious collections as the Montreal Contemporary Art Museum, the Musée du Québec and the Canada Council Art Bank.

Although connected to a residence, the studio doesn’t try to absolve itself of an industrial language, and this is where it reaches its greatest degree of success. Symmetrically bound on two sides by large overhead glass garage doors, the studio space is inspiring and bright with its polished concrete floor and pure white walls that open to a high cathedral ceiling.

The minimal aesthetic is perfect for Jean, who often creates gouache-on-paper compositions that remind one of the heroic 1920s works of the Russian Constructivists, with their bold colour schemes and dynamic geometric language. In a fitting example of life imitating art, the house is very much akin to a line drawing motif that Jean has been using for decades: a plain gabled Acadian house with a central chimney.

The living section of the house is a strong example of regular materials being used to their utmost potential. Careful craftsmanship combined with a limited colour palette of greys and naturally stained woods give a zen-like aura and consistent flow throughout the interior. Accessed through a small, efficient kitchen that opens up to nature on both sides through garage doors similar to those used in the studio, one is drawn to the adjacent 24-foot-high living room. Here, stylish furniture and a diminutive wood stove are set between a symmetrical pair of tall windows that break up the concrete wall and floor surfaces.

Overlooking this unique high-ceilinged space is an austere bedroom mezzanine above. Accessed by a winding stair lined with medium-grey stained lumber, the bedroom feels almost like the bow of a ship, floating above the rough water below.

A number of design interventions connect NB20°5 to its site, including tight pathways to the nearby cliffs, and a pair of wooden decks extending from both sides of the house that give perfect opportunities for either sun or shade at most times of the day.

This project is testimony to the timeless appeal of the modest vernacular, and specifically to traditional Acadian houses that have often been disregarded by contemporary architects. The house was a finalist last year for the Prix d’Excellence en Architecture from the Ordre des architectes du Québec, and the accolades are well-deserved for this striking example of tradition meeting innovation. CA

John Leroux is an architect, author and art historian who lives in Fredericton.

Client Jocelyn Jean and Rose-Mai Roy
Architect Team Benoit Boivin, Marie-claude Hamelin, Loukas Yiacouvakis
Builder Jocelyn Jean
Area 2,000 ft2
Budget $150,000
Completion 2007