Function in the Junction

PROJECT Courtyard House, Toronto, Ontario

DESIGNER Studio Junction Inc.

TEXT Lola Sheppard

PHOTOS Peter Tan

There are many areas of Toronto whose edges are defined by ravines, rail-lines, or major traffic arteries, and they operate like urban villages. Wherever such infrastructure–whether it is natural or man-made–intersects the traditional fabric of the city, urban anomalies emerge: triangulated lots, disconnected alleyways, dead-end streets and so forth. It is within this accidental or anomalous fabric that one encounters architectural surprises such as the courtyard house by Peter Tan and Christine Ho Ping Kong of Studio Junction, a young Toronto design firm.

Situated within a surprisingly sublime landscape of rail corridors, concrete factories, and light industry, the architects have converted an old contractor’s warehouse into a remarkable live/work space for themselves and their two children. Maintaining and extending the original concrete block walls of the factory, the designers have created a truly urban house, but one which creates an intimate interiority within the surrounding urban fabric.

Much as infrastructure creates anomalous zones within the city, voids are used in the house to demarcate programmatic transitions from living to working spaces. The house is organized around two courtyards: a more formal court at ground level that separates the main house from a workshop/ studio space, and an intimate courtyard on the second floor which acts as a counterpoint in scale and section to the main court.

In plan, the house develops as a series of spaces or strata alternating between well-lit and muted zones. The ground floor, albeit entirely open, is subtly divided into office, kitchen, living space, courtyard, and workshop strata. These strata are marked by zones of compression and decompression, articulated through changes in height and light. Similarly, the second floor is organized into strata of bedrooms and play spaces, a circulation band, a wet “corridor core,” a smaller courtyard, and a linear void to the office space below.

The ingenuity of the house is the doubling of the courtyards, and the articulation of their differing programmatic and experiential roles. There is a sense that even the most seemingly mundane acts of domestic life, particularly the spaces of labour, are given equality with more formal spaces. The kitchen acts as a centre or pivot point on the ground floor while the generous bath and laundry room are given full glazing and direct access to the second-level courtyard. This “wet” workroom and its adjacent courtyard serve the basic needs of washing and hanging laundry, but also provide intimate play spaces for the children.

Offset in section, the courtyards serve as a light source in a range of ways. Because of the relatively large area of the original factory, the house is deep in plan and has surprisingly few openings to the street. Hence, virtually all views and light are captured from the courtyards. The ground-floor office is bathed in clerestory light borrowed from the upper-level courtyard. Similarly, the kitchen area which separates the office and living spaces, is otherwise quite dark but is animated by a skylight which gathers light from the upper courtyard. This play of courtyard, light and views establishes a sequence of long vistas which perceptually expand the volume of the house.

The materiality of the house is controlled and minimal. Concrete block and large cedar-framed glass panels define the exterior enclosure with a recessed wood “bay” marking the house’s entrance. Inside, the polished concrete floors at ground level are a nod to the industrial origins of the building, while teak and mahogany plywood line the ceilings, walls and built-in cupboards. The extensive use of wood, which is warm and slightly dark, emphasizes the sense of interiority in the house.

For Tan and Ho Ping Kong, the house was a leap of faith, a kind of urban and architectural pioneering. The couple spent several months looking for an appropriate site–in particular, one inexpensive enough that they could afford to build a house from scratch on a very tight budget. Having spent a year on design and planning permission, they spent the next three years building the house themselves, with Tan acting as general contractor.

The architectural graduates have travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia studying courtyard typologies: both vernacular and formal, ancient and modern. These influences permeate the architecture. The house also evokes a Dutch humanist sensibility, recalling Aldo van Eyck’s statement that “a house is a tiny city, a city a huge house.” There is an urbane quality to the house. In its reinvigoration of a neighbourhood in transition, there is also a sense of interiority at multiple scales such as the courtyards, lighting, and even the furniture. Drawers tuck ingeniously into the stairs to form storage. Beds are built into walls, and the play spaces can be reconfigured, subdivided or expanded, by means of screens. Each occupant–whether adult or child, working or playing–can customize the house to his or her uses.

Van Eyck denounced the falsity of abstract antonyms: “small versus large, near versus far, part versus whole, outside versus inside, individual versus collective.” It is the courtyard house’s multivalence–to be urban yet introverted, open yet intimate–that reveals the rich potential of the project’s double readings.

Lola Sheppard is Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo School of Architecture. She is a partner of Lateral Architecture in Toronto.

Client Peter Tan and Christine Ho Ping Kong

Design Team Peter Tan, Christine Ho Ping Kong

Millwork Studio Junction Inc.

Contractor Peter Tan

Ground Floor Area 2,200 ft2

Budget $350,000

Completion 2007