Canadian Architect

Feature

Track & Field

Floating Surreally Within An Inspiring Topography, a Noble Country Retreat Provides An Architecture Professor With the Opportunity to Review the Work of His Former Student.

March 1, 2006
by Ricardo L. Castro

Project La Maison Des Abouts, Saint-Edmond-De-Grantham, Quebec

Architect Pierre Thibault, Architecte

Text Ricardo L. Castro

Photos Alain Laforest

La Maison des Abouts, a house in Saint-Edmond-de-Grantham near Drummondville, Quebec, marks a watershed in the rich and stimulating career of architect Pierre Thibault. His forays into art and landscape architecture have qualified him as a practitioner in what the American critic Rosalind Krauss defined as the expanded field1: his field of action can be located beyond established categories and genres. Thibault’s interest in pushing the conceptual and physical limits of architecture is undoubtedly correlated with the work of contemporary artists/architects such as Robert Irwin, Andy Goldsworthy and James Turrell, or architects/artists such as the late John Hejduk, Gigon/Guyer, and closer to home, several recipients of the Canada Council Prix de Rome. Les Abouts definitely falls within this scope of practice.

As in his previous work, both architectural and artistic, Thibault’s first design move fully engaged the geography and the history of the site. He addresses an old tradition of using the architectural project as an opportunity to develop a sense of topothesia–from the Greek definition, meaning the thoughtful choice of site location and the proper placement of a building in its topography and landscape.

La Maison des Abouts sits on the oxbow of a meandering river. Although coincidental, the evocative name that the clients gave to their country house highlights its liminal and topographical features. The word abouts refers to the lands–forest tracks as well as uncultivable parcels–that farmers have traditionally kept as reserves on the limits of their properties. Within the architectural tradition, the name evokes the way of designating a given building according to its geography. Think of the Acropolis, the Sea Ranch, Falling Water, Bay House, Palisade House, Prairie Houses, and a myriad of other examples.

Reaching Les Abouts entails travel through the flat countryside of the Saint Lawrence Plains (known as the Mixedwood Plains Ecozone), characterized by farming fields interspersed with forest pockets. For the owners of the house, as well as for any visitor, the voyage is a therapeutic passage from the city’s buzz to the idyllic calm of Les Abouts’ surroundings: a high canopy of pine, poplar, and birch trees, as well as a fern-covered dell that extends between the house and the river. This is the setting that the clients, who are art lovers, considered most favourable for the ample spatial display and installation of their collection, setting the works of art in relation to their architectural and natural location, another instance of topothesia.

The project’s geometric parti consists of two volumes that house three distinct zones: private, public, and a central corridor that connects all the dependencies. Conceptually, this east-west axis intersects the curve of the meandering river. A longitudinal rectangular volume containing the private areas–a master bedroom with its corresponding bathroom, kitchen, private living area layered between an ample entrance loggia and a riverside loggia–flanks the corridor on the south, while a tall two-storey cube, containing the public areas plus a library and guest room on the upper floor, flanks the corridor on the north.

The house’s simplicity and starkness immediately engages those who arrive at Les Abouts. Furthermore, a series of design strategies–the dislocation of conventions and the introduction of subtle illusions–contribute to a heightened awareness of the relationship between the artifact–the house–and nature. For instance, through the thoughtful composition of opaque and transparent surfaces, from many vantage exterior points and in many interior spaces, the house seems to meld with the forest. Here and there, surprising surrealist traits punctuate the experience of the rigorous geometric spatial order of the house: an existing rock has become the step that leads to the platform of the building and entrance; in the same area, a tree pierces through the floor and roof; a transparent glass walkway bridges the stair landing with the library and guest room areas of the second floor. At night, the building seems to hover over the terrain that slopes gently down the glade towards the river, eliciting the feeling that one has boarded a ceremonial barge ready to navigate a primordial forest. These effects evoke the cunning strategies that Belgian painter Ren Magritte favoured to thrust the observer into a conflict between reality and illusion, one of the notorious examples being the painting Carte Blanche (1965) illustrated in this essay.

A rich and warm treatment of wooden floors, ceilings, and storage areas underscored by white drywall, accentuates and complements the large wooden post-and-beam structure. Floor and roof beams, which cantilever beyond their vertical supports, play up the impression that the ceiling and the floor of the veranda float around the lower rectangular volume. On the side of the house facing the arc of the river, this veranda becomes a high loggia directly adjacent to the kitchen. Diaphanous mosquito screens, posts, beams, and the bare inside planes of the floor and roof define this outdoor room, one of the most coveted yet humble spaces of the house. Its counterpart, on the opposite side of the building, is the entrance loggia, a true propylaeum (literally, before the gate) that subtly marks the most public area of the house and establishes a perfectly sheltered transitional space to the indoor areas, a spatial organization that, no doubt consciously, echoes Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House.

Les Abouts eloquently illustrates Thibault’s skill at creating memorable and evocative architecture that establishes a sense of place. In the process of making this house, Thibault has pushed and transcended conventional limits, elegantly materializing the idea of topothesia.

1 The idea of the expanded field in relation to sculpture was first introduced by Krauss in her 1979 article entitled “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” The article was republished in Krauss’ collected essays entitled The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1985.

Ricardo L. Castro is an Associate Professor at the McGill School of Architecture.

Client Withheld

Architect Team Pierre Thibault, Charles Ferland, Andre Limoges

Structural Gaetan Samson, Ingenieur Conseil

Contractor Rejean Desilets

Area 2,500 Ft2

Budget Withheld

Completion Summer 2005




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