The Guises of Time

Pliny the Younger, the notorious Roman statesman and writer whose description of his villas have added greatly to our understanding of his time, pointed out in one of his famous letters: “You are surprised, you say, my dear Gallus, that I am so fond of my villa at Laurentum, but you would cease to be if you knew how pleasant the house is and how conveniently situated… It is only 17 miles from the City, near enough to let one attend to his affairs and still have a good part of the day to spend at the villa.” (From Pliny’s Letters, Book II, Letter 17, translation by Helen H. Tanzer, The Villas of Pliny the Younger, New York, 1924, p. 7).

What is emphasized here is the possibility of retreating from the bustling city to a conveniently accessible yet natural enclave. Since Roman times, and most probably even before, this type of geographical and temporal displacement has been deemed an enticing proposition. Roman villas figure as prime examples and rightful predecessors to this tradition, which has produced, in the course of 2,000 years, numerous examples. These range from the Renaissance Palladian Villas and elaborate Baroque retreats to well known contemporary examples such as Mies van der Rohe’s Villa Tugendhat, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater.

A significant parallel to Pliny’s early account that is both obvious and elusive is the emphasis on time that informs the design of a contemporary villa. Pierre Thibault’s Villa du lac du Castor embodies this temporal preoccupation. Last year, the project was awarded First Prize in the residential category by the Ordre des architectes du Qubec (OAQ) Prix d’excellence 2000. The villa, located a 90-minute drive from Montreal, is in the midst of a privately owned one square mile estate in Grandes-Piles, Compt Laviolette, north of Shawinigan.

The lush and densely wooded character of the property creates an idyllic Nordic setting for the dwelling. The project takes its name from lac du Castor, just west of the villa. The journey from the city constitutes in itself a loosely choreographed event that begins to unfold throughout the varied topography of the site, simultaneously delaying and enriching the arrival to the building. On the journey one first encounters an installation composed of wooden poles supporting a light structure of beams from which black fabric hangs and moves with the wind. This whimsical installation by Thibault entitled refuge extrieur formed part of several pieces of the architect/artist’s show at the Muse du Qubec last year. The light, ephemeral materiality of the structure alludes to the passage of time and serves to announce the presence of the villa, whose east faade soon appears in the distance.

The villa lies on a long north-south axis. While its west faade opens to the lake, its east faade consists of a more opaque wall built of vertical grey pine logs interrupted only by the protruding volume of the garage/workshop. This side of the villa is reminiscent of the protective palisades built by some Native American tribes and by early European settlers. Here Thibault, as in some of his previous projects–such as the Muse de la nation Huronne/ Wendat–deliberately alludes to historical precedent. In contrast to the European preoccupation with longevity and permanence, Thibault explores the idea that architecture be allowed to return to the earth, a position shared by many indigenous cultures. Thus his villa encompasses an exploration and an allusion to entropy, the process of continuous decay inherent in geological and topographical time.

Thibault is preoccupied by the qualities of what the American artist Robert Smithson called “Sites of Time,” or places “that manifest the forces of growth, change, decay, spoliation, mixture, and drift.” (Gary Shapiro, Earthwards, Berkeley, 1995, p. 120.) Of little surprise, then, is the discovery that the architect, in his preliminary explorations for the project, became fascinated by the seasonal variations that affected the site. These include, for instance, the impact of a beaver dam on changing lake levels, or the way in which the large fallen tree trunks, progressively losing their leaves, slowly reveal their column-like nature.

These are the inspiration for the structural system of treated pine logs that support the villa’s various roof plates and in turn echo the rhythms of the surrounding forest. The use of wood as a primary building material allows the building to respond and reflect the natural changes on the site by simultaneously acknowledging and resisting the processes of degradation. The villa can thus be thought as breathing in time with the forest.

Indoors, the spatial sequence of the villa unfolds with clarity. A series of unexpected discoveries await those who cross the threshold tucked into the intersection of the east wall of the villa and the garage/workshop. From here one reaches a lobby area that serves as a connecting space with the main areas of the dwelling. These include a screen porch that serves as a living space during the summer, a large enclosed kitchen that opens into dining and living areas contained in the tallest indoor volume of the villa, and, located on the south side, a two-storey section that contains the main bedroom, bathroom, and water closets at ground level and the studio on the second floor. This skillfully orchestrated sequence of spaces offers surprises related to the heightened experience of time through the various senses. Memory is one of the facets that colours our perception of time, and smell is one of the strongest agents of memory. Throughout the interior of the villa different types of wood have been combined: grey pine logs for the structure, white pine for the ceilings, and ash for the floors. The pervasive fragrance remains with anyone who visits the building.

Stimulating another sense, the structure of pine logs anchored in the basement, traversing the main floor area to reach and support the high roof plates, provides an invitation for haptic contact with the villa’s indoor surfaces. The structural logs contribute as well to the spatial and temporal continuity with the surrounding forest. Some of the indoor walls, particularly those accommodating the hearth of the dwelling and its stairs, carefully built with local stone, seem to have been designed to invite touch.

The descent to the basement areas and the ascent to the studio are framed by stone walls that provide a mineral threshold. The studio, overlooking the south and west areas of the site, is an intimate retreat within the villa and a manifestation of the primordial tree house, a place for the animation of all the senses.

The architectural quality of the Villa du lac du Castor emerges from skilful detailing coupled with an innovative use of form, structure, and materials. In turn, this unique combination has been nourished by the direct collaboration with the clients themselves, a Montreal couple–connoisseurs, tireless travellers, and collectors with a passion for art, building, and nature. Their continuous feedback to the architect in the various facets of the design has contributed greatly to the magic that inhabits this place. Also crucial to the project’s success is the architect’s persistent preoccupation with time in its various guises. In the Villa du lac du Castor, Thibault has been able to summon the immanent characteristics of geological, historical, and phenomenal time to produce a truly memorable place.

Ricardo L. Castro, MRAIC, is an associate professor at the McGill University School of Architecture.

Client: Marc Rgnier

Architect team: Pierre Thibault, Vadim Siegel, Andr Limoges, Denis Marois

Structural: Jacques Lamarches, ing.; Jean Benot, ing. (wood connections only)

Mechanical/electrical: Meconair-Ghislain Poitras ing.

Contractor: Rjean Dsilets

Furniture: Ren Desjardins

Area: 400 m2

Budget: withheld by request

Completion: June 2000

Photography: Alain Laforest