Book Review: The Architecture of Point William

A new publication chronicles Shim-Sutcliffe's improvements to a Muskoka property over two decades.

Beginning with a boathouse in 1996, Toronto firm Shim-Sutcliffe has completed a series of projects for clients Gerald Sheff and Sanitha Kachan on a property north of Toronto. The most recent project, a replacement of the main cottage, was completed in 2018. Photo by Edward Burtynsky

Chronicling the evolving vision of a site in Muskoka over several decades, The Architecture of Point William: A Laboratory for Living (ORO Editions, 2021) is the latest of surprisingly few monographs on the work of Toronto firm Shim-Sutcliffe. An ode to the powerful force of time, the book is as richly layered as the project documented within its pages.

From 1996 to 2018, Shim-Sutcliffe collaborated with clients Gerald Sheff and Shanitha Kachan—the former an architecture graduate himself—to develop a property north of Toronto, with the goal of creating what Sheff and Kachan describe as a “warm and inviting point of connection for family and friends.” The 22-year-long design journey started with the construction of a boat house which garnered a Governor General’s Award. Next came the guest house, the main cottage, and finally a garage. Each building is constructed roughly on the footprint of an existing structure. In the process of removing the original 1960s cottage, a large, granite outcropping was revealed, which has become the focal point of both the site and the buildings that inhabit it. Great care was taken throughout the designs to acknowledge the local vernacular and trades of the Muskoka region. 

Scott Norsworthy was one of several photographers invited to document the site, and returned several times to capture seasonal changes in light and landscape. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

A Laboratory for Living’s main text is an essay by historian Kenneth Frampton. Frampton walks us through the compound at Point William, which he likens to a stroll garden “wherein each successive structure is conceived in relation to the one that preceded it.” The tour starts at the parking bays at the entrance and culminates in the show-stopping main cottage, overlooking the lake. The essay is peppered with Frampton’s own sketches from a 2017 visit, which he made to further understand the site.

Critic Kenneth Frampton’s site sketches accompany his essay on the work at Point William.

The following sections feature each of the four buildings in chronological order of construction: the boat house (1997-1999), the guest cottage (2007-2010), the main cottage (2010 – 2017) and a garage (2017). Here, the visuals—a complement of photographs and sketches—do the talking. The site was photographed extensively over the life of the project, by multiple photographers. We see the structures from unexpected vantage points, alone and in context with one another, at various times of the year and in different kinds of light. The main photographers were Edward Burtynsky, James Dow and Scott Norsworthy, and their stunning imagery is given lots of room to shine, with a happy abundance of full-page images. Too often, architectural photography is limited to a punctual and narrow moment in the life of a building. It is wonderful to see how imagery accomplished over time and in all seasons, with different people behind the camera, can reveal the depth, complexity and subtle layers of a design.

An outcrop of Canadian Shield bedrock was partially covered by the existing cottage, and revealed when the 1960s structure was removed. The new buildings are arranged to frame the granite as a landscape feature, making it a focal point for the property. Photo by James Dow

The book’s last section is a conversation between Brigitte Shim, Howard Sutcliffe and architect-writer Michael Webb. Shim and Sutcliffe reflect on how the long-term nature of this project allowed them to experiment with different elements at various scales and gain a deeper understanding of the site. They see their work at Point William as a set of  “cousin” buildings, influenced by other works undertaken by their practice over the site’s two-decades-long development.

Most of his photographs were meticulously staged, but this unplan­ned photograph became one of Norsworthy’s favourite images of the project. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

Throughout the book, the concept of dialogue repeats like a leitmotif. As Shim and Sutcliffe write, the compound at Point William embodies a dialogue between “found conditions, new interventions and reimagined landscape” that include the recurring natural elements of forest, rock and water; a material palette of wood, steel and stone; and the legacy of Victorian cottages, camp cabins and grand lake cruisers. In the publication itself, there is a further dialogue between words, diagrams, sketches and photography, giving a fuller picture of this remarkable place.

It is clear to even the most casual observer that Shim-Sutcliffe’s love of the craft permeates everything they do—and this publication is no exception.

Amanda Large is the co-founder of Toronto-based doublespace photography.