Design With Type: Double Duplex, Toronto, Ontario
PROJECT Double Duplex, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Batay-Csorba Architects
TEXT Javier Zeller
PHOTOS Doublespace Photography
Since moving their firm from Los Angeles to Toronto in 2012, Batay-Csorba Architects has established a reputation for balancing research and building, and challenging assumptions implicit in the city’s built fabric. This interest in the transformative possibilities of playing with architectural typology has resulted in two Canadian Architect Awards and a spot on the OAA Awards shortlist in quick succession.
Toronto’s character is embodied in the carpet of houses that stretches across the inverted T-shape of the old city, testament to a speculative boom at the end of the 19th century. The condominium wave currently consuming much of downtown has left large swaths of these low-rise residential neighbourhoods untouched. An eye-watering rise in real estate prices has done as much as any planning controls to limit the insensitive block-busting that characterized downtown development in the 50s and 60s. Now, developers are instead buying oversized, undervalued or vacant lots to construct small-scale speculative infill projects.
These low- and mid-rise developments comprise much of Batay-Csorba’s work, a portfolio which is typical of emerging practices in Toronto. But their interest in pursuing each of these projects as a serious study in urban form-making sets the firm apart from most of its contemporaries.
In the 1970s, architect and theorist George Baird’s pioneering work in analyzing Toronto’s urban morphology was a landmark North American example of typological analysis. So was Steven Holl’s survey of housing in Rural and Urban Housing Types, which included the ubiquitous Toronto double house as an example.
Batay-Csorba’s Double Duplex project consciously confronts this cultural history to great effect. The speculative pair of duplexes, which completes the north side of a well-treed street in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, is remarkable in the degree to which it stakes out a new approach to the familiar type identified by Holl—all while unsentimentally complementing the form of its neighbours.
At first glance, Double Duplex is surprisingly unobtrusive, considering its strong formal contrast with the bay-and-gable Victorian houses that make up the balance of the street face. The twin buildings maintain the setback of their immediate neighbours. While their massing suggests that each is a single residence, the cladding strategy informally signals their internal arrangement. A two-storey wood brise-soleil screens the front of the upper units and orange-red brick clads the lower units. Together, the wood and brick form a dialogue with the traditional materials of adjacent dwellings.
This consideration of the streetscape extends to the shape of the brise-soleils and metal roofs. There is a subtle asymmetry between the two houses, evident in the upper unit of each duplex. In the western half, the wood screen continues across the building face to align with the second storey cornice of the house next door. In contrast, the eastern twin’s sloping metal roof dips down to pick up the line of its neighbour’s roofed porch.
Each of the duplexes is composed of stacked two-storey units that extend the full length of the houses. The lower unit is bracketed with sunken courtyards at either end. Entry is through the street-facing courtyard, where a metal stair descends to this lower level. Once inside, it doesn’t feel like a typical basement: an open living-dining space stretches the length of the house, with expansive windows at each end, while the courtyards and double-height volumes that cap the space suffuse the interior with light, even on a snowy mid-winter day. The interior walls of the courtyards are painted with murals that very effectively expand the space of the lower floor into the site.
Three upper-floor bedrooms are arranged on the ground level, two of them pulled in from the exterior walls to create a loft condition over the living spaces below. These bedrooms face large, aluminum-framed windows. The third bedroom suffers comparatively, depending on borrowed light from an inverted bay, carved into the demising wall.
The upper unit, reached from a street-level vestibule by a black-painted checker-plate steel stair, is a kind of inversion of the lower unit. The upper-floor bedrooms are pushed to the exterior and a skylight draws light into the centre of the plan. The wood brise-soleil covers the south façade from second to third floor, forming a tall, semi-enclosed outdoor room. The screen throws an abstract pattern of shadows—with allusions to animal or cloud forms—recalling traditional Arabic mashrabiya or latticework screens, which allow for both shade and privacy.
Both lower and upper units enjoy a high degree of privacy from the street, which is striking as this is achieved while using large-scale windows. The living areas of the lower unit are screened from view by the guard surrounding the entry courtyard, with the bedroom pulled away from its large ground-floor window. The upper unit is completely obscured behind the brise-soleil, its volume set back from the street and only visible at oblique angles. This project admirably overcomes the typical condition of contemporary homes, where large windows into living spaces or bedrooms are masked by perpetually drawn shades.
As a speculative project, Double Duplex doesn’t engage in the fetishization of material or craft that characterizes many client-commissioned modern residences. Batay-Csorba have instead applied their efforts to achieving spatial variety, selectively using digital fabrication to amplify the material and textural richness of the project’s most public face.
The interior is by no means spartan, though. All the units sport custom kitchens with integrated appliances. Elegant and cost-effective design solutions have been deployed, such as exposing the floor joists and arraying the blocking to echo the algorithmic pattern of the sunscreen. In the upper units, a splayed column gives whimsical punctuation to the kitchen, while allowing for a more economical structure.
The most notable success of the project is the adventurous way that Batay-Csorba has managed to re-imagine the semi-detached house as a horizontally divided type. This approach of tackling typology distinguishes Double Duplex from most other modern takes on the traditional bay-and-gable home. The project does not shy away from adopting a modern language, but the doubling of density in such a gracious and sensitive way is ultimately even more innovative. It radically re-imagines the typical Toronto house, and in doing so suggests a way of growing the city without destroying its fabric.
Javier Zeller, MRAIC, is an architect working in Toronto with Diamond Schmitt Architects.