Deco reiterative

PROJECT Lawren Harris House Restoration, Renovation & Addition, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Drew Mandel Architects
TEXT Katharine Vansittart
PHOTOS Tom Arban

Lawren S. Harris didn’t live here long. In 1931, the iconic Canadian artist commissioned construction of his monumental house poised high in the heart of old-world Forest Hill. It was designed by Russian-born Alexandra Biriukova, one of few women practicing architecture at the time, and the first female member of the Ontario Association of Architects. The house’s composition of a flat roof and strong, simple geometry with a plain façade and black steel windows was radical for Toronto at the time, and must have stunned its neighbours. Never mind the controversy. By 1934, Harris, then 49, had packed his bags and moved away after having thoroughly scandalized Toronto society by leaving his wife and marrying Bess Housser, herself recently divorced from Harris’s friend and associate Fred Housser.

Even today, if you step out onto the third-floor terrace of the towering Art Deco-era house and look out from its singular perspective over the tops of aspen and conifers that wood the front yard, across the dormers and gables of the traditional enclave, beyond the high-rises of downtown, and then all the way to the shimmering expanse that is Lake Ontario, you can sense Harris’s maverick spirit. At home in the wilds of northern Ontario and amongst Europe’s avant-garde, it is in this house that the painter synthesized much that he’d gleaned in his life up to that point. The Ava Crescent residence was more than just a home for Harris–it was a light-filled studio, impromptu art gallery and salon where he could gather and inspire fellow artists that defined 20th-century Canadian art history. “Without Harris,” wrote A.Y. Jackson, “there would have been no Group of Seven.”

“It is an imposing house, with this large oval foyer,” says architect Drew Mandel, standing in the elliptical front hall. With its soaring cove ceilings, curving walls and granite-trimmed travertine, the front hall shares a similar footprint to many of today’s condos. As the entrance’s grandeur alone attests, Harris was no starving artist. Part of the Massey-Harris Company Limited agricultural machinery clan, he studied in Berlin, served in the First World War and then travelled around Europe and America where he would have witnessed early Modernist architecture firsthand. 

Mandel was commissioned by the current owners in 2010 to restore the house and renovate portions of it to better suit their lifestyle. “They said it was an impressive house with lots of character but that it didn’t feel like a home,” recalls Mandel. 

The house is listed as a heritage Art Deco-influenced building and several Deco features remain, but only some are authentic. Subsequent owners attempted to engage with the building’s mythology by adding exterior lanterns and sconces. Thankfully, Harris’s design for the simple, stylized fern motif on the stair railings remained. Nonetheless, the home is more in keeping with the Moderne or International Style traits which came after Art Deco and thus helps explain the residence’s experimentation with steel, concrete, glass, and a clean aesthetic unencumbered by all historic reference.

The Harris house is constructed of steel webbing and concrete block covered in stucco–an advanced technique for Canadian residential building at the time. As an artist, Harris explored formal abstraction, minimal colour and purity of composition in his paintings, so Biriukova’s pared-down structure and streamlined décor would have resonated with him. “It was an exciting time,” notes Mandel, who discovered the building’s robust structure during demolition of the back wall to make way for an addition that carries forward the Modernist sensibility.

A semi-public quality to the house may be key to what wasn’t translating easily into 21st-century “hominess” for the current owners. Harris, one assumes, had in mind his family when he commissioned the project and it must have felt welcoming once completed. The dining room, in the front west wing, remains much as he would have enjoyed it: bright and convivial thanks to full-height windows, chamfered corners and 12-foot ceilings. In the front east wing, the living room is larger though similarly shaped, sunlit and inviting, with a wood-burning fireplace. In both rooms, as on the spiral staircase treads, birch, fir and pine floorboards lend warmth to contrast against the stone floors elsewhere. The combined effect was perceived as being “Canadiana Art Deco” for its uniquely nationalistic and naturalistic evocation of the diversely interpreted style. “But there is a formality to the house that is challenging,” notes Mandel. From a contemporary family’s perspective, longing for spaces in which to lounge in front of a big-screen television or curl up with a book, presents a challenge for an architect to rethink both its form and function.

Said to be a social hub and home gallery in Harris’s day, the foyer perplexed Mandel. “Every time we had meetings we’d hang around in here wandering what to do with it.” The sensible solution was to then approach the project from the rear of the house. The original kitchen, pantry and washroom were located off the front foyer. “Every time you came across the old kitchens and bathrooms, you couldn’t believe how stifling and inappropriate they were,” notes the architect. Attached to the east side of the kitchen had been Harris’s garage. A previous owner had renovated it into a family room and built a three-car garage that once dominated the backyard. “Fortunately, the things that needed our attention were also the things the clients wanted updated to suit their lifestyle,” says Mandel.

The architect responded by reorienting and broadening the entry points at the rear, thereby reversing the massing-to-glazing ratio to the extent that the once-stucco back wall is now almost entirely steel and glass with limestone piers echoing the house’s existing limestone detailing. A reduced two-car garage now opens out to a sandblasted glass walkway sheltered by a floating steel canopy. “It makes for a nice promenade,” says Mandel of the seamless sequencing from car to kitchen. The promenade includes passing through a “mudroom” by name only–the room has 12-foot ceilings, clerestory windows, sleek cabinetry and deep counters containing a large white sink used for washing the dog and rinsing flowers.

Moving from the mudroom to the renovated kitchen, the moniker “kitchen” seems barely adequate. More than any other aspect of the 21st-century home, changes to where we prepare food and how we enjoy family time have shifted profoundly since Harris’s day, and this is what Mandel sought to express when reconfiguring the new kitchen’s program. The kitchen’s 12-foot ceilings draw much attention to the garden while playing off of the relatively lower-ceilinged adjoining family room. Redesigned to be more of an outdoor lounge than garden, the backyard features limestone and concrete decking, along with a built-in grill, cabana and pool that is flanked by a fringe of grasses on the west wall and ivy on the east.

Continuing with the home’s black-and-white scheme and material palette of steel, glass and stone, a Corian island floats atop a sea of black terrazzo used to visually unite the various open-concept rooms. In keeping with Frank Lloyd Wright’s belief that architecture and furniture design are a holistic entity, Mandel designed ample built-in quarter-cut white-oak cabinetry, desk, entertain
ment centre and bar nook. A minimalist stone-and-steel gas fireplace articulates the corner connecting the breakfast nook, family room and garden.

Rising from the driveway along the back of the west wall and across the kitchen ceiling’s seam, a long, thin skylight demarcates old and new. The “gap,” as Mandel calls the strip of glazing, also brings slanting sunlight into the kitchen and could represent an allusion to Harris’s spiritual paintings: think of the sunbeams in his North Shore, Lake Superior and other mountain paintings that are pierced with a renewing sense of light.

Negotiating with the home’s conspicuous architecture was a first for Mandel. The majority of his residential commissions demand that he must work with Victorian-era architecture found throughout Toronto, and his approach is typically to juxtapose old with new. With the Harris residence, Mandel remarks that “Sometimes it’s the texture and grit of the old houses that makes the gleaming new thing work. Here, it was Modern but not the same kind of Modern.”

Other restoration work included repairing hardware and replacing putty work around steel-frame windows for better energy efficiency, uncovering and refinishing floors and renewing the stucco exterior. The owners, who have lived here a year, continue to discover new ways of enjoying each space. With Harris in mind, they’ve held parties that began in the foyer, “but everyone always ends up in the kitchen,” the owner laughs. 

Habits and innovations of one century can become eccentricities and inefficiencies in the next. Elegant formality can become awkward formality. On the original 1930s drawings there is a room in the basement simply called “Trunks” that has now become an exercise/dance room. The remaining portion of the previously dank basement has been updated to include an entertainment centre and wine cellar. Harris’s third-floor studio is now the master bedroom and his pantry has become a mudroom. The outdated kitchen is transformed into the super-efficient hearth of the home, while the bathrooms provide amenities more suitable to today’s daily rituals. The 7,850-square-foot mansion was not lacking space, yet Mandel’s 535-square-foot addition effectively integrates the original spaces by creating a more comfortable and spontaneous living environment. No doubt Harris would have felt right at home. CA

Katharine Vansittart is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

Client Withheld
Architect team Drew Mandel, Jowenne Poon, Caroline Howes, Allison Gonsalves, Rachel Tameirao
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Limited
Landscape Drew Mandel Architects
Interiors Drew Mandel Architects
Contractor Eisner Murray
Area 8,367 ft2 (plus 3,478 ft2 Basement and 2,578 ft2 Garden Room)
Budget Withheld
Completion 2011