Canadian Architect

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View Master

With Site And Landscape As Inspiration, Toronto-Based Architect Ian Macdonald Consistently Imbues The Poetic Into The Houses He Designs.

April 1, 2008
by Leslie Jen

Among the esteemed architects in Canada who focus on residential design–among them Brian MacKay-Lyons, Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, Peter Cardew and the Patkaus–Ian MacDonald distinguishes himself through subtly nuanced and modest design gestures whose sublime results far exceed the sum of their parts. There are no bombastic theoretical statements at play, just an uncanny ability to interpret the specific site conditions of each commission and determine an imaginative–and completely appropriate–response. Within his buildings, most of which are located in Ontario, there is a clear sense of MacDonald’s understanding of and connection to the regional landscape.

Visiting MacDonald at his downtown Toronto office, my first impression is of design studio from architecture school days long past. No hierarchies are in place; MacDonald sits amongst his staff of six in a compact arrangement of desks in an atmosphere of close-knit collaboration. Cardboard study models are mounted on the walls, and everyone works intently and diligently in a relaxed environment. In a refreshingly affable manner, MacDonald is adamant that the office is not about him– there is very much a collective studio approach to the work, a clear benefit of running a small firm.

That MacDonald has worked with some of Canadian architecture’s luminaries–such as Ron Thom and Arthur Erickson–comes as no surprise. These senior practitioners clearly impressed upon the young architect the lessons of site and structure and the paramount importance of landscape in architecture. For each project, the studio undertakes extensive site and topographical analysis, roaming the property and assembling detailed photographic composites to assess all conditions to determine the most advantageous siting and form with respect to oft-competing concerns of light, view and privacy. Contributing to this sensitivity, MacDonald is an avid outdoorsman who has a healthy respect for the land, particularly in Ontario where he has spent most of his life.

Seeking to uncover a site’s potential and to exploit its virtues while diminishing awareness of its liabilities, MacDonald incorporates the client’s program into the development of a form possessing an appropriate spatial character relative to the site. In communicating his approach to clients, he uses terms like “spatial interpretation,” “digestion of the landscape,” “sequence of experience” and “strategic view-framing.” Years of experience and an intuitive approach have enabled MacDonald to finesse his decidedly nonlinear process to achieve an entirely new level of integration between building and site, creating a harmonious and virtually seamless relationship.

Although they are invariably beautiful artifacts, the houses the firm designs are not merely objects in a field; they burrow into and enmesh with the landscape. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses from the 1930s cannot be denied. In Substance Over Spectacle (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005), George Baird states that Mac- Donald’s houses “present more complex and obscured visual impressions to the approaching visitor,” and describes the narratives in the spaces as “cinematic, sequential, pictorial.” As such, they are difficult to photograph as single entities, their strengths being revealed experientially, in physically moving through the spaces. A modernist language of shifting planes and overlapping layered volumes reveal themselves in sectional complexity. Though the houses are largely orthogonal in plan, the roof lines are often highly expressive. For instance, the dramatically folded and soaring roof plane of the House in Mulmur Hills 1 (1999) incorporates the protruding form of a large angled skylight to draw southern light into the primary living spaces. In the House in Mulmur Hills 2 (2001), two distinct but interlocking building forms are clearly differentiated by their contrasting roofs: evoking the rural barn typology, a steeply pitched gable roof defines the volume containing the private spaces of bedroom and studio, while a flat-roofed volume encloses the more public spaces.

What is particularly striking about Mac- Donald’s houses is the impeccable attention to detail, revealed in the exquisite craft and materiality present. Having built his own boats, Mac- Donald is a skilled craftsman who indulges his interest in carpentry in his fully equipped home workshop, a place of experiment where architectural ideas are honed and tested in model form. His is a process of building up from a small detail, of knowing intimately how a particular material feels and sensing its joinery, how it should meet with other materials. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty; we sense his connection to materials as much as we sense his connection to site and landscape.

Exhibiting the mastery of a landscape painter– but one working in three dimensions–Mac- Donald is exceedingly skilled at editing views. Though the manipulation of the view is an intuitive process, the firm’s practice of fleshing out sectional drawings with carefully constructed sight lines clearly illustrates how this is done. Deconstructing the generic “view” into three general components–foreground, middle ground, and distant ground, MacDonald picks and chooses one or two on which to focus, editing out the least compelling component(s). For example, the hilltop siting of Mulmur House 1 on a 100-acre property keeps the poetic tall grasses of the foreground in constant view, editing out the mediocre middle view while securing a long vista of the forest. Without the scaling references of foreground, middle ground and distant ground in complete view, the landscape stretches endlessly, or so it seems.

Conversely, the House in Erin Mills (2002) is sited rather counterintuitively on 10 acres of meadow and forest, not at the highest point of the site from which to survey the entirety of the property, but at its lowest point adjacent to the road. In doing so, the nearby marsh and the gentle topography of the rolling meadow constituting the middle ground is captured, while the distant view is controlled to minimize potential view pollution from future encroaching suburban development.

In an amusing anecdote, MacDonald recalls how the form of the House in Erin Mills was derived from an offhand comment by a developer friend. In referencing the million-dollar views exploited to maximum effect in so many of Mac- Donald’s projects, the friend remarked that with a spectacular view like that, it didn’t matter what the rest of the house looked like; that one could, in fact, staple an Atco trailer to the back of it and no one would notice. Which is what MacDonald did, more or less. The house is comprised of two perpendicular volumes in a T-shaped plan, with most of the budget dedicated to the public volume enjoying the primary view. Detailed millwork, hardwood and wood-framed glazing equals big money. To mitigate the cost, the “dumb box” (albeit an elegantly rendered dumb box) containing the den, bedrooms and washrooms is constructed with more economical materials.

Another fine example is the architect’s own home, the Wychwood Park House (2002), located in an idyllic enclave in midtown Toronto. The Narnia-like ambiance of this heavily treed neighbourhood pocket is distinguished by the presence of a pond and ravine, and is enhanced by 19thcentury Arts and Crafts style homes and cottages– many designed by architect Eden Smith. Given the project’s small awkward triangular site and extreme restrictions placed on this heritage-designated neighbourhood, the house is an exercise in controlling views largely for reasons of privacy. In order to accommodate the program of private indoor and outdoor spaces required for a family of four within the 1,100-square-foot building footprint of the 1951 developer’s bungalow that previously sat on the property, the design undertakes a substantial renovation of the existing structure, creating a site
within a site that involved excavation far below grade, incising new walls in the process.

As the house is located in the heart of the city, understandably it is not so much about capturing spectacular distant rural views as it is about manipulating and editing immediate views for privacy. As a result, there is a wonderfully insular feel; its embedded condition translates into the sensation that the house is the landscape. Here, it is the middle ground that is edited out to block views of vehicular and pedestrian traffic while focusing on the immediate foreground of the front courtyard and on distant views of the trees, intact remnants of Carolinian forest.

The project is actually two separate structures linked below grade, originally conceived as a 2,500-square-foot house for the family with a 1,500-square-foot secondary structure intended as a studio for MacDonald’s architectural practice. For now, the office still operates in a separate location downtown and the studio space is largely unused, though it is designed and wired for future occupation. Along with MacDonald’s workshop where he actively builds architectural models and boats as a hobby, the surprisingly light-filled studio is neatly and discreetly tucked beneath the garage, 20 feet below grade.

While view-framing and manipulation is a paramount driver to the design response, maximizing the quality of daylight is also considered. These competing concerns find happy resolution in MacDonald’s design methodology. Mulmur House 1 is adept at achieving this balance between light and view. While the spectacular north view is captured and framed by a low horizontal band of windows opening from the main living space, premium southern light is addressed instead through a protruding skylight volume punching through the roof on the opposite side. The Wychwood Park House also achieves this balance of light and controlled view along the double-height slot with a strategically glazed back wall: the lower panels are kept clear for unimpeded views outdoors, while the upper panels are sandblasted to a translucent finish to accept light but not the prying eyes from the neighbour’s mansion looming overhead.

Wide spatial variation and diversity is another consistent theme in MacDonald’s oeuvre. He has stated that being commissioned to design a house for a client or clients–often a couple–is like being hired as a therapist: conflicting demands make for interesting spaces that can accommo- date both. In Mulmur House 2 and the Wychwood Park House, one can find the signature Ian Mac- Donald inglenook–a cozy low-ceilinged zone contained within a larger room with a more expansive ceiling height. In the former project, the house is sited such that the main living space seems perched perilously, with views down the dramatic slope of the property to the forest beyond. The completely eroded corner condition of the space defined by floor-to-ceiling glazing can make the house’s inhabitants feel overexposed: to counter this, the bookshelf-lined inglenook next to the fireplace offers a sense of intimacy and compression with its 7′-4″ ceiling height. MacDonald uses this dimension time and again across his projects to communicate a human scale, creating a powerful dynamic when juxtaposed with adjacent double-height spaces.

The tension between the compression and expansion of varied ceiling heights is particularly potent in the Wychwood Park House. Though seemingly a simple hip-roofed bungalow form, the house is spatially complex and sectionally rich. Besides the provision of the inglenook in the double-height family room, modulation of the ceiling plane occurs in other parts of the home. The entry sequence conveys a sensation of intimate compression, which continues into the kitchen and through the corridor to the living room at the far south of the house. It works because of the immediate relationship to the adjacent fully glazed double-height slot along the back of the house, where the space explodes vertically. This diversity of ceiling heights and spatial conditions present is complementary rather than schizophrenic, creating a dynamically compelling experience.

In recent years, MacDonald has expanded his repertoire beyond residential design towards public projects. In 2005, the two-part expansion to Sidney Smith Hall on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus was completed, providing an extra 6,000 square feet of administrative office space on the second and third floors of this building dedicated to the Faculty of Arts & Science, in addition to a 12,000-square-foot ground-floor student lounge.

The second-and third-storey “infill” addition was executed first, on top of the existing central single-storey link between two buildings of varying heights. To avoid appearing like a uniformly terraced structure stepping down from the north, the central volume was rendered in a contemporary vocabulary through stainless steel cladding. The addition reads as distinct and of its time, but nonetheless exists harmoniously with its adjacent structures by referencing the silvery-grey colour from the handsome 1959 John B. Parkin-designed tower to the north. And instead of literally incorporating historical or architectural motifs of a bygone era into the design itself, references are made through what is captured in the all-important view. Rather than framing a distant vista in a dramatic rural landscape for a country house, here, a horizontal band of glazing in the second-storey conference room captures a wide expansive view eastwards of important buildings at the heart of the urban campus, a true historical link.

One year later, a student lounge at Sidney Smith Hall was also constructed, expanding the ground-floor area by a considerable 12,000 square feet, but whose perimeter edges are dematerialized through the provision of floor-to-ceiling glazing. The overall result is a balanced intervention that achieves a wonderfully broken-down massing and unique materiality wherein the three distinct structures comprising the Faculty of Arts & Science complement each other beautifully.

In the evolution of Ian MacDonald’s practice over the past two-and-a-half decades, we have come to witness the maturation of one of Canada’s finest practitioners and have benefited from the increasingly refined process he employs to create sensitively detailed site-specific buildings. Materially, the houses are a seductive and sensory delight. They present a symphony of natural materials where the warmth of mahogany contrasts with smooth polished concrete and the power of irregularly textured dry-laid stone walls. His seemingly subtle design gestures create sectionally complex and experientially rich layered spaces that demand revisiting, invoking discovery and wonder. The results are consistently inspirational and aspirational.CA

———

HOUSE IN WYCHWOOD PARK, TORONTO, ONTARIO

CLIENT DIANE MACDIARMID

ARCHITECT TEAM IAN MACDONALD, OLGA PUSHKAR, TIM WICKENS, MICHAEL ATTARD

STRUCTURAL BLACKWELL BOWICK ENGINEERING

MECHANICAL TOEWS SYSTEM DESIGN

MILLWORK KOBI’S CABINETS

CONTRACTOR CENED CONSTRUCTION

AREA 2,600 + 1,500 STUDIO

COMPLETION 2002

———

HOUSE IN ERIN COUNTY, ERIN, ONTARIO

ARCHITECT TEAM IAN MACDONALD, TIM WICKENS, OLGA PUSHKAR, MICHAEL ATTARD

STRUCTURAL YOLLES PARTNERSHIP INC.

MECHANICAL TOEWS SYSTEM DESIGN

MILLWORK GIBSON GREENWOOD

CONTRACTOR MARCUS DESIGN BUILD

AREA 2,200 FT2

COMPLETION 2002

———

HOUSE IN MULMUR HILLS 1, DUFFERIN COUNTY, ONTARIO

ARCHITECT TEAM IAN MACDONALD, ADRIAN BLACKWELL, OLGA PUSHKAR

STRUCTURAL BLACKWELL ENGINEERING

MECHANICAL TOEWS SYSTEM DESIGN

MILLWORK RADIANT CITY MILLWORK

CONTRACTOR
DAVID H. SIMPSON CONSTRUCTION

AREA 2,700 FT2

COMPLETION 1999

———

HOUSE IN MULMUR HILLS 2, DUFFERIN COUNTY, ONTARIO

ARCHITECT TEAM IAN MACDONALD, OLGA PUSHKAR, SCOTT SORLI

STRUCTURAL BLACKWELL ENGINEERING

MECHANICAL TOEWS SYSTEM DESIGN

MILLWORK MILLWORKS CUSTOM FABRICATORS

CONTRACTOR DAVID H. SIMPSON CONSTRUCTION

AREA 2,700 FT2

COMPLETION 2001

———

SIDNEY SMITH HALL, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, TORONTO, ONTARIO

CLIENT FACULTY OF ARTS AND SCIENCE, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO

ARCHITECT TEAM IAN MACDONALD, MICHAEL ATTARD, OLGA PUSHKAR, TIM WICKENS, NOVA TAYONA, JEREMY CAMPBELL, YVETTE JANSCO

STRUCTURAL READ JONES CHRISTOFFERSEN

MECHANICAL ENSO SYSTEMS

MILLWORK MCM 2001

CONTRACTOR JJ MACGUIRE GENERAL CONTRACTOR

BUDGET $4 M

AREA 6,000 (PHASE 1); 12,000 (PHASE 2)

COMPLETION 2005




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