Nun Of The Above

Project La Cornette, Cleveland Township, Quebec
Architect YH2_Yiacouvakis Hamelin Architectes
Text Thomas Strickland
Photos Francis Pelletier unless otherwise noted

Somewhere in the roll of field and forest in southern Quebec sits La Cornette. Its strangely formed–but all the same familiar–roof peaks over the very top of a soft green bump as though the building might be engaging one in a whimsical game. This view from the road leading to the residence foreshadows a refined playfulness that underpins the country house by Montreal-based YH2_Yiacouvakis Hamelin Architectes. Designed for two families, the purpose-built rural escape “tries as much as possible to free itself,” according to the architects, “from the world of the machine.” For Loukas Yiacouvakis and Marie-Claude Hamelin, who co-own La Cornette with close friends Philippe and Stéphanie, the curious structure manifests the promise of kinship and the inversion of everyday life. 

The idea of leaving the labours of city life behind is implicit in the residence’s siting. Located two hours east of Montreal, La Cornette’s nearest equivalent is an abandoned ancestral barn just down the slope; beyond this, only the vague outline of a neighbouring farm is visible through the home’s generous glazing. Here, Yiacouvakis explains, there are no computers. This is an impressive commitment that belies the building’s social context and its place in the history of country houses. In the 21st century, to free oneself from the machine implies leaving behind e-mail, word processing and, for architects, the primary site of design and production. For many, computers and internet access mean work has increasingly become a component of life in the home, filling every room with the potential for a panicked e-mail from the office. But for Yiacouvakis and Hamelin, whose studio is a converted garage at the end of their yard, work is also literally built into their Montreal home. To get away for the weekend is not only a means to escape city noise and activity, but an opportunity to leave home well behind.

The combination of building and countryside has long been a means through which notions of escape, recovery, kinship and home have been explored. Indeed, aside from the island, the countryside has been embraced as the opposite to the city as the ideal place to manifest utopian visions. Often a small or at least unadorned cottage structure is involved–Henry David Thoreau’s one-room shack on Walden Pond is a famous example. It is certainly easy to see how rural settings are continually favoured, given the gentle sway of the trees, the birdsong and the distant views. These experiences can embody a sensorial and emotive shift from the clogged streets, elevators and e-mail inboxes of the post-industrial urban landscape.

Architectural historian Anthony King explains that the concept of country as inverse to city emerged in the late 16th century as urban populations increased. However, the modern practice of escaping to a country retreat is largely a product of the industrial revolution. As discussed in King’s book Buildings and Society, the 19th-century marketplace created a surplus of income and leisure time. Looking for a reprieve from the industrial city, benefactors built second homes which were often organized around large central rooms with expansive windows to integrate the outdoors. A retreat to the country was a time to reconnect with one’s core identity and re-establish familial continuity. Activities such as chopping wood and fishing were a way for the wealthy to engage with traditional values. After the turn of the century, with greater dispersal of surplus income, the institutionalization of leisure time and the arrival of the mass-produced automobile, the once semi-private rural realm of the élite became accessible to the urban middle class. Embracing the countryside in the 1930s, the middle class established prized country residences from repurposed workers’ cottages, left behind as rural labourers migrated to the city for work in shops and factories. These buildings embodied, for the weekender, the simple life of an agrarian past. By the end of the Second World War, the family car and the weekend were North American institutions, and the second home a widespread ambition.

La Cornette is a purpose-built escape inspired by the image of the traditional family house, “the kind of house we never had but wanted,” explains Hamelin. Fieldstone-faced structures with a third storey tucked under the roof were, according to the architects, places for extended family to gather for holidays and special occasions. While this image is emotionally charged, program requirements for two families required up-to-date spatial practices. Following International Style Modernist planning principles, the design integrates the two families according to function. Sleeping occurs on the top level, where the adults have private rooms, but children can sleep in either of two large bunk rooms. The middle level is an open plan in which spaces are differentiated by millwork and changes in level rather than walls, thereby maximizing visual connections to each other and the outdoors. On the lower level, the rec room is for the children. One functional decision that might incite panic for some is the provision of only two water closets for nine people, revealing the comfort and intimacy amongst the group. 

Resonant in the architecture of La Cornette is an ironic approach that infiltrates any seriousness of purpose brought forward by the image of the traditional country house. This was perhaps inspired by Hamelin’s childhood visit to her grandmother’s friend’s house. “The house,” she explains, “was big, traditional, and it seemed to me like a marvellous playground, a place where we could get lost for many hours.” Hovering over La Cornette is the great peaked roof that is its namesake. At once alluding to the region’s barns and rural houses, this intriguing canopy was in fact inspired by the wimple and starched veil of a nun’s headgear. Yet, rather than signify modesty, for Hamelin the wimple recalls the spry character from the popular 1960s sitcom The Flying Nun. This soaring roof integrates the outdoors by drawing in the elements around it with such force that the tip of its peak is tied down to prevent actual lift-off in high winds. Beneath the hood and inside the house, the engagement with nature exceeds the views to the landscape, and a fantastical interpretation of the outdoor experience is animated by the architectural finishes. Throughout the space, oversized images of fireflies, fish, and frogs are cut into the surface of aluminum sheets. The sheets are lit from behind, illuminating the creatures who act as playful guides on late-night treks to the refrigerator and, perhaps, on journeys to one’s inner child. 

At La Cornette, the notion of a single family gathered together for a rural holiday, upheld by the iconic image of the country house, is nuanced. The slightly offset roof suggests flight rather than stability, and the backlit panels emphasize the magical qualities of the outdoor experience rather than an idealized and simple rural life. While La Cornette is embedded in the tradition of retreating from urban life, the architecture pokes fun at the purposefulness of inherited beliefs and buildings, and proposes instead a whimsical place to foster kinship and accord. With the increasing spatial overlap of work and home life, this retreat for friends suggests that rather than building second homes, we should create playgrounds of wonder in which to discover ourselves. CA

Thomas Strickland is a J.W. McConnell Doctoral Fellow at the McGill University School of Architecture.

Client Stéphanie Chevalier, Philippe Bélanger, Marie-Claude Hamelin, Loukas Yiacouvakis
Architect Team Marie-Claude Hamelin, Loukas Y
Structural Rafik Matta
Contractor Emmanuel Yiacouvakis
Millwork ébénisterie Gaston Chouinard, ébénisterie ébène Plus
Area 280 M
Budget n/a
Completion 2010