In The Black: Black Box II, Montreal, Quebec
The upgrading of Montréal’s aging housing stock has attracted a rich variety of responses over the last few years from the city’s young architects, who skillfully adapt their work to the particular character of distinct neighbourhoods. The firm Natalie Dionne Architecture, known for its thoughtful residential work, has recently designed a noteworthy duo of house additions, Black Box I and II, in an area just west of Mount Royal.
Developed as an upscale suburb featuring semi-detached townhouses, with large front lawns and small backyards, the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood was built in the early years of the 20th century. It remains desirable to this date because of its tree-lined streets and its charming—if somewhat outdated—older buildings. Dionne and her team have recently put the finishing touches to a Tudor-inspired residence there, Black Box II, located on a site partially within Westmount’s city limits.
Two years before, the firm had built an addition for a home that boasted lovely lead windows and elaborate interiors, which Dionne complemented with finely detailed contemporary millwork. The project was finished in 2015 and it became known as Black Box I, a name bestowed by the owner, a photographer, who was inspired by the dark fibre-cement volume vaguely echoing the shape of an old professional camera.
Black Box II, the architect’s second project in the neighbourhood, had bleak interiors, except for its well-preserved oak floors. Most of the house was gutted and its structure was reinforced to make way for a major transformation. The tiny backyard, which became a determining factor in the design of the small addition—80 square feet on each of the house’s two floors—proved to be remarkably effective. Clad with dark fibre-cement boards, the asymmetric volumes bring a fresh, contemporary look to this architecturally traditional neighbourhood.
Dionne and her close collaborator, Martin Laneuville, are known for their involvement right down to the most minute aspects of their projects, and for their close relationship with their collaborators, particularly cabinetmakers. The kitchen they designed for Black Box II with its solid oak central island shows the “symbiosis” between the cabinetmakers and the design team. “We share a joy and obsession with wood,” says Dionne.
The new kitchen, with its four-foot wood-lined extension, was entirely open to the dining area as well as to the adjacent exterior patio paved with dark slate slabs blending seamlessly with the large ceramic tiles inside. Developed by Laneuville for Black Box I, the recessed DEL lighting appears as a subtle black channel providing task lighting for the island. Given the kitchen’s eastward orientation and the absence of direct sunlight past 11 a.m., a slanted lightwell was introduced in order to benefit from the sun’s rays during brief periods in the afternoon.
On the second level, the new bedroom with its loggia, made of a perforated fibre-cement board, projects over the patio below and creates a protected cedar-lined alcove. Full-width openings, generated by a NanaWall window system used on both floors of the house, blur the limit between exterior and interior, much to the delight of the owners who spent much of their professional life in milder European climates.
Black Box I and II are examples of compact additions as an effective, ecological alternative to rebuilds and excessively large homes. With these two projects, the architect and her team are definitely taking a strong stance against the stark white minimalism of recent years. This approach is also a reflection of the firm’s long-time commitment to working closely with the trades, especially the millworkers “sharing a common love for woodwork”, says Dionne. Her artisanal approach is a sensitive and yet appropriately contemporary response in this neighborhood whose original builders were greatly influenced by the British Arts and Crafts Movement.
Odile Hénault is an architectural critic and consultant based in Montreal.