Domesticating the country’s rugged landscape has been a long-standing preoccupation in Canadian architecture, going back to the late 19th century establishment of the great railway hotels. Architecturally, these embodied a robustness of scale and picturesque roof massing that could both complement and compete with the majestic Canadian landscape. This has descended as an evolving legacy to inform projects as diverse as John Andrews’ Scarborough College, Ron Thom’s Trent University and the Patkaus’ Seabird Island School.
In his jury comments for the 1999 Canadian Architect Awards of Excellence, Barry Sampson paid tribute to this ongoing preoccupation. Referring to a range of projects submitted to the awards program, he wrote that “Canadian architecture is developing a distinctive ability to translate the evocative power of its found landscapes into an architectural analogue of similar strength” (see CA, December 1999).
Sampson also expressed his admiration for “how adept many architects are in carrying out their designs in three dimensions, working in section as skilfully as in plan.” He wasn’t writing about Ian MacDonald’s design for this house in Ontario’s Mulmur Township, north of Toronto (the house won a CA Award two years earlier, in 1997), but he might as well have been. Carefully sited to both engage the landscape and emphasize views from within, the house embodies the paradoxical tension between pragmatism and romanticism that characterizes the best landscape-inspired Canadian architecture.
Despite the fact that Canada is among the world’s most urbanized societies, this romantic relationship to landscape persists, resulting in what Ian MacDonald describes as “the quintessential pull from the city to the country.” With this project, the architect reveals himself to be an astute interpreter of that tradition, orchestrating an episodic approach to and through the house that accentuates the transition from the predictable, ordered grids of urban streets and rural concession roads to the more complex rhythms of the natural world.
The approach to the house is deliberately meandering and disorienting, winding through a pine forest to a six-acre clearing on the drumlin where the house is sited. The point of arrival at the east end of the house is nestled in a grove of pines, creating an intimate, contained landscape that surrounds an enclosed garage and generous mudroom scaled to accommodate a large group returning from hiking or snowshoeing. Views from the mudroom are directed into the pine grove, emphasizing the relationship to the immediate foreground.
Moving up half a level from the mudroom into the kitchen, the distant view to the northwest is gradually revealed, culminating in a dramatic long view from the living and dining room through large north-facing windows. A large screen porch terminates the house’s long axis at the west end, extending the band of windows and providing extensive exposure to the long views at the north and west.
The large roof element slopes down from east to west, containing two bedrooms and baths in a partial upper floor over the mudroom and kitchen and providing a complex overheight section and exposed Douglas fir rafters over the living and dining room and the screen porch. The sloping exposed ceiling also serves to draw the eye to the northern view, compressing the space in the direction of the north-facing window.
In addition to the spatial sequence, the arrangement of windows enhances the viewer’s experience by framing the distant view, screening out the middle ground to focus instead on the wooded hills beyond. This device exaggerates the difference between the house’s intimate relationship to the pine wood lot at the east side and the open meadow and distant views at the west. This contrast is also reinforced by the arrangement of the master bedroom and den: the den faces west to the long view, while the adjacent bedroom’s windows face south, directly into a dense stand of pine. The careful orientation of each room to a particular landscape condition results in a range of experiences providing each room with a unique character and identity, from the grand and pastoral to the intimate and tranquil.
Other devices create highly particularized moments, such as the projecting roof monitor on the south side, oriented to direct southeastern light directly onto the fireplace wall, and the window discreetly inserted into a wall of bookshelves, providing a privileged view for someone seated in the inglenook.
The house’s eccentric forms are tempered by a restrained material palette: the exterior consists of exposed concrete, dark-stained cedar shingles and Galvalume roof, taking its cues from a nearby barn. Maple floors and cabinets, exposed Douglas fir roof structure and painted drywall surfaces provide a muted but warm interior. The overall effect, both inside and out, is one of rustic elegance. MP
Mulmur House 1, Mulmur Township, Ontario
Client: name withheld by request
Architect team: Ian MacDonald, Adrian Blackwell, Olga Pushkar
Structural: Blackwell Engineering
Mechanical: Toews System Design
Landscape: Vertechs Design Inc.
Contractor: David H. Simpson
Area: 2,700 ft2
Budget: withheld by request
Completion: Fall 1999
Photography: Michael Awad