Canadian Architect


Ground Plane

Existing below the waist, this architectural intervention embraces a front entry, mitigates a parking lot and helps restore a natural ravine.

July 1, 2005
by Ian Chodikoff

From the daily rush of luxury cars emerging from Toronto’s Forest Hill, I had the recent pleasure of turning onto a quiet side street whereupon I discovered a small garden embracing a discreet apartment building overlooking a spectacular view of the wooded Cedarvale ravine beyond. This landscape required no building permit: the architecture in question remains under three feet tall. The private garden anchors an adjacent residential building, mitigates the dominance of the site’s parking requirement, and coexists with one of Toronto’s sensitive ravine habitats.

Renovated a few years ago to include the client’s penthouse suite, the 1920s-era six-unit apartment building commands stunning views while overlooking the variegated garden dominated by blooming white flowers (from Bloodroot to Canada Anemone) below. Beginning at the front door of the apartment building, the landscape terminates at the other end with an elaborate cedar box used as a receptacle for several trash bins. The box is fitted out with copper detailing and ingenious animal-proof hardware that has yet to be mastered by the innumerable raccoons living in the area. The cedar box’s functionality extends to assuming the role of signpost and informal gateway to the property, as evidenced by the custom-designed address numbers and discreet lighting built into its guise. As an informal gateway, the box protects the gardens from passersby who might view the landscape as a public amenity before descending into the woods and toward a nearby subway station. Initially, a bench was planned for the site, but due to the garden’s exposure to the public, it was decided to not make the garden too inviting.

Architect Lisa Rapoport of PLANT Architect Inc. found it a challenge to create landscape that would cohabit with the ravine landscape, yet remain domestic in scale. If the garden was too large, then the public would think of the space as a community garden. If the landscape remained too small, the effect of it being able to exist as an extension of the adjacent and city-owned ravine landscape would be lost. Rapoport’s strategy uses linear plantings derived from the rhythm established by the parking requirements. The garden would use or match plantings found on the ravine’s diverse forest bed with a landscape arranged in strips one- to two-plants in width containing over 37 species of plants, five large trees, 45 lower trees, 27 shrubs, 100 grasses, and 85 ferns along with 540 woodland perennials and ground-cover plants.

In addition to restoring some of the plantings on the forest floor as well as stabilizing the slope, the woodland garden offers a means of managing storm runoff from the adjacent parking lot. Stormwater is collected on the site through troughs of granite chips behind each of the stone parking curbs. In the garden itself, granite chip troughs absorb additional runoff so that a negligible amount of water is directed onto the street or into the ravine. The paving existing at the parking spots and adjoining sidewalk is comprised of asphalt with exposed limestone aggregate, and was kept to a minimum, allowing maximum surface water percolation. Other hard materials used elsewhere include pigmented concrete to divide the parking spaces. A secret recipe used by the contractor allowed him to pour nearly immaculate board-formed concrete walls. Limestone coping from Owen Sound, which takes on a particular taupe colour when wet, contrasts nicely with the pale colour of the concrete walls. These low walls demarcate the series of entry bridges as well as the upper and lower gardens leading visitors and tenants from the parking lot to the front door. With the many changes in path direction, along with a subtle change of levels and materials, the project is a nod to the Japanese garden where a visitor can stop, turn and appreciate a multitude of views within a limited terrain while remaining conscious of the variety of surfaces underfoot. Here, wood and stone slab bridges float over the plantings, and from Northern Ontario, a single large piece of limestone from Wiarton forms one of the entry bridges. Cedar planks nailed tightly together on their ends form another entry bridge leading into the building. A discreet lighting strategy is incorporated through the use of inexpensive rope lighting affixed to the underside of the stone slab. Additional lighting can be found recessed into the concrete walls. Large boulders were carefully chosen–and sledgehammered where necessary–to provide a visually balanced landscape changing several feet in grade from the parking lot to the ravine’s top-of-slope.

Rapoport is an architect that likes to use plantings with exaggerated geometries in her plant selections. Along with Striped Maple and Blue Beech trees, Serviceberries, sedges and ferns form the landscape’s framework. As both the garden and ravine restoration process were completed in the summer of 2004, plantings such as the dogwoods and ferns will continue to mature and form an elevated ground plane around the floating entry bridges up to a maximum height of four feet. As the landscape matures, these taller plantings will serve as a datum line that will further define the sequence of flowering plants.

Existing in somewhat of a “mysterious milieu,” Rapoport describes her practice as operating within a strange niche where most of her work involves private homes, but the designs are often heavily landscape-based. This Forest Hill landscape is a particularly noteworthy example of PLANT’s work that adds a robustness and spontaneity to the participant’s experience of moving around bridges, low walls, trees, plants and rocks that were shipped to the site and adjusted to create a unified garden. The overall effect is that of a geometrically defined well-planned garden that dissolves into a vast ravine landscape beyond.

Architect team: Lisa Rapoport, Mary Tremain, Chris Pommer, Dan Kronby

Landscape Architects: ENVision–The Hough Group (grading, plantings and stormwater management strategies)

Contractor: Coivic Construction

Budget: withheld

Area: 5300 ft2

Client: withheld

Completion: Fall 2004

Photography: Christopher Pommer/ PLANT

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