Prairie Villa

House on a Hill, Calgary, Alberta

Sturgess Architecture

“Most houses built in Canada,” Calgary architect Jeremy Sturgess states bluntly, “are dysfunctional; maybe 90 to 95 percent are designed to meet the needs of everyone and end up meeting the needs of no specific anybody.” With over 100 houses under his belt since setting up his own firm with wife and active architecture partner Leslie Beale in 1977, the Toronto-born and Calgary-raised Sturgess speaks with authority.

Since its debut, the firm has gone from treating residential architecture primarily as a service to an exercise in culture creation. “We have always been considered a bit edgy by Calgary standards but for years our work was, I think, accomplished but not particularly original.” It was not a matter of the firm’s affinity for postmodernism, he adds quickly, so much as a simple matter of survival.

A recently completed residence for a family of five demonstrates again why he has emerged as a rare, Alberta-based signature architect. The House on a Hill sits on a steep slope in the rolling hills of Calgary’s Elbow Park district on the southwest edge of the city’s core. On the exterior, the house is a controlled study in geometric volumes and voids, what Sturgess calls his unabashedly Corbusian Villa Savoye. But a surprisingly organic interior molds the house to the geography of the site while a deft blending of interior and exterior rooms responds to climatic imperatives. And these are only a few ways in which the house exudes a sense of place.

For Sturgess, considering two basic, always unique elements is essential–site and client. While he generously concedes that most architects handle the first well, responding appropriately to the question of how to create spaces for the individual and the family as a collective so that the house can adapt as needs evolve is rare. “You have to be able to help the client see, in a design sense, where they are capable of going, to broaden their experience in order to open up options, and then to help them narrow those options down to what will serve their needs best. We re-invent the wheel every time we design a house,” he adds.

Those familiar with Sturgess’ work, however, know that there is an additional dimension to it: a connection to place. In his own description of the Yukon Visitor Reception Centre (designed in collaboration with FSC Groves Hodgson Manasc Architects; see CA June 1997), he wrote of its “consistency of structural form generated by an attitude to construction that was special to this place.” In this same vein, his fellow Albertan architect Barry Johns maintains that “living on the Canadian prairie, one comes to understand the uniqueness of the place, its vernacular origins and climatological prejudices.”

Sturgess’ Kilian and Sergerie Residences take strong but different cues from both the local vernacular and the prairie landscape. The former is a spare, elemental box carefully placed on the equally spare, elemental landscape to capture stunning vistas. At the same time, a galvanized metal roof and earth ramps leading to entrances make reference to Western barns. In the latter, house and barn are bonded together in deference to the harsh winter climate, all capped by an animated play of roof planes that seem to make present the distant mountains.

With the House on a Hill, however, Sturgess is back in town, tucked away from the cosmic openness of the open prairie. In deference to neighbouring 1950s bungalows, the house stretches horizontally across its generous 75 foot lot. In plan, the interior spaces of the house are restricted to the west side of the site and climb up the back slope.

The house consists of three iconic volumes–a tall, forward pavilion with a folded roof sloping west and north and a circular tower on the west that acts as a hinge connecting the pavilion with a shallow vaulted slab perched up the slope. The pavilion is then surrounded by a horizontal “bungaloid” form appearing to hold everything together and also enclosing a large exterior deck on the east half of the site. By raising this last element on pilotis, the house is made to sit delicately on the landscape, even permitting views up the eastern slope.

Prairie weather is both harsh and stunning, so the inclusion of extensive but protected outside space to maximize use is important. Similarly, the region’s powerful cosmic light demands to be used. The pavilions are placed to pick up the path of the sun, their windows located to allow light to penetrate in ways that create both shafts of illumination and plays of shadow. And–given what Sturgess calls the region’s “squashed light which gives buildings hard, black-edged shadows that are almost graphic in nature”–the geometric voids cut in the horizontal form, the layered window openings, and the underbelly of the bungaloid platform set up a wonderful play of strongly etched lines.

The stucco exterior, a material that Sturgess reports is found on 90 percent of Calgary bungalows, is coloured strong blue, olive green, and deep purple. Although these conform to the client’s own preference, the architect also believes they are appropriate for the Mediterranean intensity of the light.

Once inside, stairs ascend from the ground level entry, bending back around the curved wall of the tower cylinder to the main piano nobile level. “Their previous house, bought from one of my earlier clients, had a circular dining room,” reports Sturgess, “and this was the one element they demanded in their new house.” Clearly expressed on the outside, the disarming two-storey space serves as a sort of keenly focused family council room.

With views down to the river valley, the slightly sunken living room is dominated visually by both a totemic, copper-clad fireplace rising five metres to the ceiling, and a single, exposed composite beam, a signature structural element common to Sturgess’ houses. At the southwest corner, a small guard post-like office/study sits over the stairwell, its corner bay and inside windows commanding both exterior and interior views.

Polished concrete floors contrast with the strong colours of the walls that Sturgess has brought in from the exterior. When coupled with the copper as well as the composite beam, the maple kitchen cabinetry, bookcase, and divider cupboard, and the fir window frames–all in natural stains–a rich but still crisply Modernist interior of spatial complexity emerges.

By opening a pivoting door, the deck becomes an extension to the living room. Similarly, from the kitchen, two doors open to a terrace cut into the slope. “There is,” the architect reports, “almost 2000 square feet of crafted outside space designed into this house.”

Three steps up from the kitchen and carved into the slope are two bedrooms for the children. Up the steep stairs that wind around the rear of the dining room, one arrives at what is less a master suite than a master loft, an adult retreat stretching across the rear slab volume. A clearly Japanese-influenced bathroom–a product perhaps of Sturgess’ experience designing the Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel (1988) in Nikko, Japan–contains a deep, square sitting tub.

The eastern half of this level contains first the bedroom proper and second a small corner office whose large windows provide a commanding view over the surrounding houses and hills. From the bedroom, another large, south window looks out to a roof terrace tucked in behind the living room volume and partially protected by a cantilevered canopy. This is a marvelous exterior room that provides the same kind of balance between the comforting protective containment and the exhilarating openness a hiker might find in a deep niche behind a rock ledge high in the mountains.

Like Brian MacKay-Lyons’ work on the East Coast, Sturgess’ best prairie houses distill archetypes that are then worked in such a way as to resonate with a genius loci. Despite impressive larger projects such as the Banff Town Hall (see CA January 1997), residential design remains an important touchstone for Sturgess. “Understanding the house,” he concludes, “allows y
ou to design successfully at a larger scale because it assists you in understanding and mastering detail.”

Rhys Phillips is an Ottawa-based architecture critic.

Client: name withheld by request

Architect team: Jeremy Sturgess, Lesley Beale, Bob Horvath, Jeremy Joyce

Structural: Grant Structural Engineering

Contractor: Perman Builders

Area: 220 m2

Completion: August 2000

Budget: withheld by request

Photography: Roger Brooks