Canadian Architect


The Sum of Its Parts

An Intensive Exploration of An Architectural Process for An Unusual Toronto Residence Is Examined.

September 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect





Who would ever imagine that a math professor could amass enough capital to build a multi- million dollar home in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods? But the Integral House, designed by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, will be much more than a testament to the client’s wealth when it is completed in the spring of 2008. It will likely come to represent a building that is an object of beauty resulting from an intense collaboration between a visionary client with patience and an architecture firm entrenched in the continuous process of architectural refinement, material exploration, and site investigation.

While most people will know the Integral House as a project designed by Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, those who have been involved in the architectural and construction process of this project number in the hundreds. Shim-Sutcliffe project architect Betsy Williamson spent more time on the Integral House than she did in all her years in architecture school, but has since pulled away from the project as she concentrates on establishing her own firm with partner Shane Williamson. Other significant collaborators include structural engineer David Bowick from the Blackwell Bowick Partnership and general contractors Steve Eisner and Steve Murray of Eisner Murray, who spearheaded the project’s construction timeline, with the indefatigable Vic Furgiuele as construction manager. As Shim has mentioned on several occasions, the production of architecture is similar to making a movie. The director receives all the attention, but the hundreds of individuals responsible for the overall completion of the project remain anonymous. For this reason, the Integral House exhibition held in the spring of 2006 at the University of Toronto, along with a publication produced by the University of Buffalo, illustrated the great efforts made to list the names and roles of all those who have worked on the project up to the date of publication and exhibition.

The final concept for the Integral House grew out of hundreds of sketches, drawings, and models: the testing of ideas was achieved through full-scale mock-ups and reiterations. As in most architectural offices, chipboard models and tracing paper still comprise so much of the design process, but so do a variety of digital fabrication techniques that are becoming increasingly prevalent in all forms of practice. But this iterative process is not new to Shim and Sutcliffe, who have developed manifesto-type architectural explorations throughout their careers. From their first commission–a garden pavilion in 1989–to the Integral House, their work has often explored the relationships between landscape, architecture, the process of making, and the spatial cues of where the body fits into the project, regardless of scale.

The name “Integral House” comes from a variety of sources, most notably referencing client James Stewart, a mathematician, musician and author who made his fortune writing calculus textbooks that have been sold around the world and reprinted in several languages. Because Shim-Sutcliffe used alpha-numeric symbols for a grid based on cardinal points, they began calling the house’s curved wall the summa line, in reference to the summa symbol (*) used to represent the integral in calculus. From this point onwards, the Integral House was born.

Even though the house is still under construction, arrival at the front door beckons the visitor into a complex world that displays its exuberance in private while presenting an exquisitely polite face to the public. From the street, a two-storey composition with an etched-glass faade sits atop a wooden base, all of which appears as a mutable lantern to the surrounding upscale Rosedale neighbourhood. Generously set back from the street, this two-storey volume contains a series of guest bedrooms that may eventually be converted into a caregiver’s suite when Stewart reaches an age where he will require assistance. As the solid, rectilinear base of the house retreats from its connection to the neighbourhood, it deconstructs into a complex series of fins as it descends toward the ravine, but not before there is a convergence of fin and solid at the main entry.

But it is at the rear of the site where the Integral House becomes a captivating architectural experiment of movement and beauty. As the site steps down to the valley below, the house’s five levels offer greater movement, function and a symbiotic relationship with the progressively natural site, with spectacular views beyond. To understand the house is to understand the building through various strata that can loosely be defined as forest floor at the bottom level; hillside retreat at the mid-levels, allowing inhabitants to peer out toward a forested wood; and finally, the treehouse-like master bedroom and rooftop terrace with clear views to the city beyond. At the very lowest level of the house, Stewart’s private exercise facilities complement the indoor lap pool. All this is punctuated with a delicately scaled Connemara marble wall standing perpendicular to a 35-foot-long floor-to-ceiling glass window that retracts into the floor at the flick of a switch, and with the help of four stainless steel screw jacks.

The entry level, by far the most public of levels, contains dining and kitchen facilities along with an upper-level living room. Overlooking a large living room below, one is immediately made aware of the dramatic double-height space balancing itself on the downward slope of the ravine, creating an internal topography punctuated by three strong vertical elements: a chimney, an elevator shaft, and a stairwell lined with blue glass designed by artist Mimi Gellman that transitions from darker to lighter from bottom to top. The spectacular main living room is designed to accommodate a musical concert for 150 guests. Complete with a back-of-house servery, it is at this point where one realizes that this private residence is as much a public concert hall and exclusive cultural institution as it is a home for an individual committed to the arts.

Perhaps the most exquisite innovation to the Integral House are the undulating curves facing the ravine. Conceived as “thick walls,” the striated envelope is an elaborate wrapper creating a range of spatial experiences: from the large, open spaces of the living room to the more intimate spaces of contemplation, such as Stewart’s private office. The rear faade is comprised of slender vertical steel supports concealed within digitally fabricated plywood columns, then clad with hand-finished honey-coloured oak fins angled in various directions. The steel columns concealed within the fins have no moment capacity, and are thus joined to the concrete slab with a rotational pin connection. Vertical floor-to-ceiling glazing is inserted between the fins. Shim-Sutcliffe are typically not so preoccupied with structural expression as much as they are with the simplicity and elegance of form, so they felt it wasn’t necessary to expose the steel members. The visual effect that these fins create is difficult to describe but most closely approximates the experience of peering through Venetian blinds. Standing at a single point in space, unobstructed views toward the valley beyond can be appreciated. However, upon rotating from one’s fixed location, the fins render one’s view to the exterior completely opaque. At the lower floors, the size, shape and placement of the fins are designed in such a way as to make the walls appear denser, while their articulation becomes lighter when rising up through each subsequent level.

To understand and appreciate the lighting conditions and peculiarities of the site, Stewart occupied the previous house on the site for nearly a year before it was demolished, but not before Sutcliffe worked out of the house for a month to establish how the new house would
be sited using tape and other markings. For zoning and building permit reasons, the Integral House had to be constructed within the building envelope dimensions of the previous house. From this point, construction drawings were developed. Drawings were made at full scale, with laser-cut steel templates containing survey grid information engraved on the steel which were used to locate the eventual building components. Steel templates were welded together to ensure that the slab edge was plumb from floor to floor. Eventually, once the concrete slabs and shafts were in place, the steel templates were replaced by laser-cut plywood inscribed with lines indicating where the glass and wooden fins would be installed. Some of the plywood templates were never removed, and will be embedded within the final assembly of the building–disappearing into the building’s structure, only to be rediscovered at some future date.

Like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, Alvar Aalto’s Villa Mairea or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robbie House, the Integral House will be a significant project–not just a pretty house built in Canada but one that expands and redefines global contemporary practice. The Integral House is a beautiful and complete exploration where thick walls act as a light modulator and where a variety of scales operate simultaneously. However, one major question exists: why does one person need such an elaborate home? Perhaps the answer is more complicated. The Integral House is not merely a hermetic residence for a single occupant but a home that will be a place in which to hold concerts, convene discussions, and engage in dialogue. For Shim and Sutcliffe, the process of building such a residence offers an opportunity to push the envelope of their abilities, to experiment with construction and collaborative techniques while pursuing excellence in design–aspects of architecture that our profession should never abandon.

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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