Modern Villa

Modern minimalism has recently been promoted by publications like Wallpaper* as a fashionable style of choice. In the process, it has been reduced to little more than visual shorthand for cool. This view of design as lifestyle accessory reads entire architectural movements as mere trends, obscuring beneath a marketable aesthetic the substantial benefits of a broader design philosophy.

A recently completed three-storey house for a family of five in mid-town Toronto by Kohn Shnier Architects goes a long way to correcting this limited reading of Modernism. Balancing its open plan and universal abstract vocabulary with site- and client-specific design, the house embodies a number of Modern architecture’s defining elements: the free plan, interpenetration of spaces, and ample natural light.

The architects–whose commitment to Modernism is embodied in projects like the Erindale Student Centre at the University of Toronto at Mississauga (see CA April 2000) and the Umbra World Headquarters in suburban Toronto–made their first big move in this project by taking advantage of the sloping site. The ground floor, which accommodates an entry hall, garage, service spaces, and a guest suite, is exposed at the north side and buried at the south. The house is organized in a piano nobile arrangement, with main living spaces on the second level.

As a result these spaces benefit from increased privacy and occupy the entire floor area, allowing for an uninterrupted ribbon of floor-to-ceiling glazing along north and south walls. Spaces are separated by elements like a powder room that screens the library/TV room from the more formal living room, and a pantry that provides a visual barrier between dining room and kitchen. A balcony runs along the entire north face, elevated one level above the entry and offering a distant view from the house’s hilltop perch, while doors from the kitchen provide access to a grade-level patio and a more intimate rear garden. The open plan allows these two radically different relationships to the outdoors to be experienced simultaneously.

On the third floor, bedrooms and baths are organized along a corridor that runs the full width of the house and that culminates in glazing at each end, introducing daylight to the otherwise internalized space. A vertical three-storey shaft running from a linear roof skylight all the way down to the ground floor entry hall provides a high degree of visual interconnection.

Other devices help provide a clear reading of the house’s full dimensions. In addition to the light shaft that allows for an experience of the house’s three-storey height, the third floor corridor encompasses its full width, while the open plan of the second floor occupies its full depth.

Details are designed to reinforce the transparency of the house. The stairs consist of wood treads delicately supported at each side, allowing for light and view to penetrate through open risers. At one side of the stairs, an expanded metal mesh partition endows the vertical light shaft with a gossamer quality, while at the other, structural sleight-of-hand results in a suspended partition hovering just above the ground level floor.

The architects also established a clear set of rules for the project’s detailing. All the glass panels in the custom built mahogany windows are fixed; ventilation is achieved by opening solid wood doors within the floor-to-ceiling frames on the second floor, and by operable solid mahogany panels set beside large picture windows elsewhere.

The predominantly white interior wall finishes are contrasted by a handful of coloured elements: mahogany windows, light hardwood floors, lacquered bookcases, and a mossy green, almost algae-coloured stone tile in the bathrooms provide strategically-placed counterpoints to the severity of the white walls.

On the exterior, the second and third floors are set back from the edge of the ground floor and are contained within what reads as a three-sided stucco frame, with different colours used to accentuate the different planes. At the south side a brise-soleil running the entire width of the house provides protection for the ribbon of glazing at the second floor, while third floor windows are shaded by a projecting stucco overhang.

Client: name withheld by request

Architect team: Martin Kohn, Tania Borotolott, Rick Galezowski

Structural: Blackwell Engineering

Landscape: Stewart Moore

Contractor: Amnon Sarkosi, Samaryn Homes

Area: 400m2

Budget: withheld by request

Completion: October 1999

Photography: Michael Awad