Going the distance

PROJECT House in Grey Highlands, Grey County, Ontario
TEXT John Bentley Mays
PHOTOS Tom Arban

Though busy Torontonians have turned it into a popular getaway destination, Grey County’s Beaver Valley hardly fits the usual definition of Ontario cottage country. It features a rolling expanse of farms, apple orchards, timbered hillsides and sheltered swamps–not the wild, angular scenes of ancient rocks and glittering lakes famously portrayed by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.

But like the less civilized parts of Haliburton or Muskoka, the Beaver Valley can tempt residential architects and their clients to take the easy way out of the housing problem, merely drop a city home into the midst of the scenery, and call the job done. The greater design challenge in these rural spots entails entering into a thoughtful dialogue with southern Ontario landforms, their geology and history, and coming up with solutions that fit, rather than fight (or ignore) the complex beauty of what’s there.

As I discovered on a recent visit to Beaver Valley, Toronto architect Ian MacDonald has tackled this artistic and philosophical challenge and carried it through to an impressive conclusion in his project known as Grey Highlands.

Designed as a year-round second residence for a Toronto professional couple with five children, the 2,950-square-foot building stands on the site of a former farm laid out high up the sloping side of the valley wall. The visitor coming there drives up the steep dead-end road that runs between the property and a nearby highway, then parks on a small pad just off the road.

Surveyed from the vantage point of the pad, the flat-roofed house sits low and broad below, partly embedded into the hillside, not perched on the property’s highest point. This sense of insertion into the landscape is reinforced by the green roof, which looks as if it had been cut and lifted from the surrounding meadowland.

The building’s long, low-slung limbs stretch out in two directions, describing an L shape in plan. The larger wing, containing the more public areas of the house, lies parallel to the ridge above and the river below. The other, enclosing the bedrooms, is set down perpendicular to the first, thrusting out toward the distant, opposite side of the valley. This outbound visual pulse is sharply checked, however, by an old timber-framed barn, roofed in galvanized steel and stained black to match the dark cladding of the house. I will come back to this barn in a moment, but a few more remarks on the house proper and its setting are in order.

The architect has created, for example, an especially effective route of approach. One walks down from the parking pad on a long, switch-back flight of stone steps sunk into the hillside. The quietly dramatic flight–a processional transition between the public road above and the private realm below–is lined with handsome, rugged walls of dry-laid granite boulders and hewn blocks built by Toronto stonemason Gus Butterfield. Butterfield’s skill at handling stone to strong, attractive visual effect is also on show in the walls around the exterior pizza oven, just off the kitchen, and in the low barrier in front of the barn.

Coming into the house by way of the well-defined main entrance, the visitor immediately finds himself not inside the high-ceilinged, open-plan living/dining/kitchen complex–that comes a little later, down a narrow hallway–but on a bridge overlooking the most secluded room in the structure.

No tall windows open this room to the spacious views roundabout. Neither as private as a bedroom, nor as public as a living room, it speaks of retreat and refuge, of measured withdrawal, if only a little bit, from the pressures of living in a family of seven. This space has been put to work, perhaps inevitably, as a playroom for the kids. But its place at the heart of the house suggests that a different program might be appropriate here someday–quiet reading or listening to music, for instance, playing chess or some other adult cultural activity.

Concrete and tough, naturally ruddy jatoba hardwood provides flooring in the living and dining areas, and exposed and unpainted Douglas fir rafters span the entire length of the main wing. The wooden elements above and below, and the mahogany millwork, lend warmth and a sense of belonging in rural nature to the otherwise resolutely Modernist, white-and-black interior of the house’s most prominent communal space. This zone is as open as the secluded room is shut–and so it goes in MacDonald’s rhythmic, flexing design, with openings and closings, and alternations between tight framings and broad spatial releases occurring throughout.

I had my most vivid experience of Grey Highlands’ aesthetic and intellectual liveliness when standing one afternoon in the living/dining area. This large room’s west wall, which faces the opposite slope of Beaver Valley, is entirely glazed. Looking through the glass at the nearest foreground, one sees a small, flat oblong of lawn. This grassy courtyard is bounded on three sides, first by the main volume of the house the viewer is standing in, then by the long bedroom wing, and finally by the barn, which is now used by the children for shooting hoops and jumping on a trampoline.

But instead of fully shutting in the western side of the court, the restored barn steps sideways to allow the eye of the viewer to pass directly from the lawn and a short patch of meadow beyond to the green valley wall rising in the background. The middle distance, in other words, is eliminated.

By using what he found on the site, inventing the rest, and taking full advantage of the site conditions, Ian MacDonald has given his clients a very particular view to enjoy for as long as they live at Grey Highlands. I had never before seen this perspective on landscape–devoid, I mean, of a middle ground–generated by a work of rural Ontario architecture: people living in the country apparently prefer to be situated in space comfortably composed of near, middle and far distances. But I had glimpsed this strategy before–not in architecture, but in certain European paintings.

The middle distance in traditional Western art is the public zone in which people mingle, exchange goods, play and protest, make friends and enemies, and do the other sociable things people get up to in the course of life together. It’s the muddle that lies between the near-term realm of body, home and family and the far-distant dominion of aspirations, ideals and high spiritual values.

Some landscape painters in the Early Modern period sought to idealize and tidy up the middle distance, but numerous European Romantic artists (active c. 1800-1840) were having none of it. In picture after picture, they depicted shadowy, intimate interiors (studies, painting studios, bedrooms) lit by a single plain window that framed only a patch of remote sky. Social space and the social sense, the middle ground between painful solitude (interior gloom) and absolute transcendence (expressed by sky and light), were abolished in these paintings, leaving their often melancholy human inhabitants to look soulfully out the window toward visions they could never attain. This existential atmosphere was illustrated recently by a show entitled Rooms with a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Henri Matisse often recalled the Romantic inclination to cut the middle ground out of compositions meant to symbolize the yearning of the real for the far-away ideal. The French artist is famous for his pensive, solitary women seated or standing at open windows. But the canvases in which he uses this spatial tactic are free of Romantic metaphysical angst, and are suffused instead with bright, thoroughly modern Mediterranean sunshine and light desire.

In a 1922 painting now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal, for instance, Matis
se puts us (and a stylish young woman) into an upper-storey salon and invites our gaze to travel over her shoulder, out the wide window, toward a sunny seascape. A few white brushstrokes suggest the sails of pleasure craft in the harbour beyond the window. But apart from these little mid-ground gestures, the space of the painting divides into two parts, an interior and the infinite blue sea.

If this spatial division seems less stark and antagonistic than what we find in some Romantic paintings, it’s because Matisse has wrapped both near and far in shadowless southern radiance. There is still longing here, a pull toward the distant horizon, but longing without anxiety or soul-destroying vexation–a gentle sense of lack, that is (like wanting a tall, cool drink on a hot day at the beach) appropriate to the holiday seasides where Matisse loved to paint.

The cloudier northern landscape scene fashioned by Ian MacDonald at Grey Highlands embodies yet another variation on this fertile theme. Here, the erasure of middle distance means that the viewer’s eye rests on either the near-ground ensemble of barn and yard or the valley wall rising opposite the house. The symbolic difference between the two spaces is distinct–one is domestic and enclosed, the other spreads out to reveal old configurations of farming and inhabitation–but the difference is not rudely abrupt. Both are inhabited places, both are lit and dimmed by the same skies, both have been sculpted by hard work pursued over several generations by farmers.

The barn close to the house recalls this tradition of labour, and so does the pattern of cultivated fields on the opposite hillside. The modern world of the middle distance–represented, for instance, by an arterial road on the valley floor–has become invisible, leaving visible only evidence of the region’s agricultural past and present. Grey Highlands, then, is not only sunk physically deep into this landscape. It also frames a view that reminds us of the human forces that have transformed this district of Ontario from wilderness into richly productive farmland.

MacDonald’s beautiful Beaver Valley house succeeds as an expert formal play of volumes and voids. But its more enduring importance to the building art consists in the mindful way MacDonald has addressed and incorporated the culture of its interesting site. CA

John Bentley Mays is an architecture critic and writes regularly for The Globe and Mail.

Client withheld
Architect Team Ian MacDonald, Michael Attard, Michael Amantea
Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership
Mechanical Nottawasaga Mechanical
Landscape Ian MacDonald Architect Inc.
Interiors Ian MacDonald Architect Inc.
Contractor D.H. Simpson Construction, Coivic Construction (Landscape)
Area 2,950 ft2
Budget withheld
Completion October 2008