Paint, Light, Solitude

Project Painter’s Studio, Dundas, Ontario

Architect Paul Dowling Architect

Text Peter Sampson

Photos Paul Dowling, Gregory Demaiter

In 2003, Paul Dowling and his wife Catherine left for Scandinavia on a backpacking expedition with their son. The only full-time staff in their small-town two-person firm, they shut down the office for six weeks to study the Nordic masters firsthand. “We wanted to understand how a culture can represent itself consistently through an appreciation for design even at the vernacular level.” For them, it was buildings they discovered in an otherwise unfamiliar rural landscape that inspired them to return to Ontario with a renewed appreciation for the patient art of craftsmanship.

Dowling admits he is drawn to farm buildings wherever he goes. It was partly for these aesthetic reasons that he and his wife left Toronto to live and work in a smaller, rural community. They settled on Paris, a small hamlet of 10,000 people in southwestern Ontario, not far from the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture where they have been teaching for the past five years. With the completion last year of a 500-square-foot painter’s studio, it is safe to say that Paris is now home to one of Canada’s finest emerging young practices.

As places go, Paris and Scandinavia are defining aesthetic forces in Paul Dowling’s development as an architect. His work is a dialogue between his attraction to the outbuildings of the landscape where he lives, and his lifelong appreciation for Nordic modernism. These culminate in this studio constructed for artist and teacher Jody Joseph. It is easily Dowling’s most accomplished project to date, and a promising indication of the office’s work to come. A recent winner in the Ontario Association of Architects’ 2006 Design Awards, the Joseph Studio is constructed as an outbuilding in the rear yard of Joseph’s home in Dundas, Ontario; as such, it is an aestheticized re-evaluation of the backyard shed.

The 15 * 36 post-and-beam structure is a vessel for Joseph’s work. Discreet detailing and a clean deployment of the plan make the greatest features of the architecture the things that you don’t see. The studio celebrates light, view, shadow, space, and flexibility without trivializing the intent to do so. Such minimalism inevitably elevates the need for masterful detailing in order to achieve a building assembly that approaches, as in this case, the sublime.

The use of materials like metal roofing, rough white pine for cladding, hemlock for fences and decks, speaks to the materials of the agricultural vernacular, yet ones that are meticulously assembled. At the large west- facing wall of glass, 4 * 16 sealed triple-glazing units are jambless, set between fir columns with discreet 3/4-inch wood stops assembled in place. The studio’s thermally broken, radiant-heated concrete slab provides for both passive and active heating and creates an uncluttered four-season space without a trace of mechanical equipment. At the north entry, careful placement of roof purlins and shifts in structural bearing points allow a thin span of sheet roofing to float above the door. Steel handrails slip out of wood siding without methods of attachment expressed. All exterior wood is treated with weathering stain that ages it consistently to a silvery grey.

Site-built cabinetry made from fir plywood stores Joseph’s work at the north while cleverly concealing mechanical equipment below her work surface at the south. There, the equipment is efficiently designed to preserve Joseph’s favourite view of the neighbourhood, now framed by a horizontal window. Dowling understood that Joseph needed the interior to be not only clean but deliberate in its intentions: as a discreetly crafted vessel, the architecture serves the process.

“We tend to think of the handmade as a visual contrast to a simpler architectural minimalism,” says Dowling. “In the Joseph studio, I think the painting plays that role–Jody’s work is very sensual and full of colour,” her process a work of art unto itself.

Joseph approached Dowling after visiting a studio he designed for a friend of hers. “I knew from her studio that Paul’s work would be sensitive to my needs…we shared a certain Modernist aesthetic and there’s still a rich language there I want to explore in painting and in architecture.” Joseph was impressed with Dowling’s patience throughout the design process. “Paul helped me refine my list of needs by asking intelligent questions like how did I set myself up in my studio? Did I look at the thing while painting? How far away was my subject? How far did I stand from my easel? Did I work standing or sitting? Is what was outside the windows important in my painting?”

“Like the best clients,” Dowling says, “they pushed us to go beyond where we had been before, and we went through many studies to come up with the final design. There was a constant editing to both keep the budget down and refine the detailing to its most minimal, and this continued throughout construction.”

Until recently, Joseph had been painting in her living room restricted in size and scale; the time had come for “the proverbial room of one’s own. I needed psychic space for my work–room to think, to explore, to consider new options and directions–this is so important to art-making.” So too, in the making of architecture. In exploring new relationships, Dowling has also found time and patience to reflect upon them. “We are deliberate,” he says, “in only taking on projects that fit with our own goals. This has worked well for us as a way to create a strong foundation in the office–our manifesto has been to do small things well. Several clients have returned for a series of projects, and these relationships have fostered a cooperative design approach, and the ability to take time to respond both to place and our own earlier work.”

Having recently moved from Toronto to Winnipeg, Peter Sampson is an associate with Prairie Architects Inc.

Client Jody Joseph

Architect Team Paul Dowling, Catherine Dowling, Gregory Demaiter, Elizabeth Buhler

Structural Zoltan Engineering Inc.

Mechanical/Electrical Enermodal Engineering Ltd.

Contractor Veldhuis Contracting

Area 640 Ft2

Budget Withheld

Completion December 2005