Privacy and quiet in the city are in short supply but this mid-20th-century-inspired house in a lively Toronto shopping district is an object lesson in bold choices and the art of concealment.
Amid the Victorian townhouses of Toronto’s Queen Street West you’ll find an unlikely two-storey block that stands out. Contrasted by the skinny houses that make up the majority of the street, this unmistakably contemporary build sports a wide, squat front that is clad in black Douglas fir panels; it sits at odds with the red-brick and stucco façades that surround it. The area is one of the city’s liveliest shopping strips, lined with independent retailers, restaurants and bars, but for the married couple who live here (and wish to maintain their privacy), the black box on Robinson Street is a sanctuary from their professional lives.
To tailor their perfect house, the owners commissioned the Yale-trained architect Kyra Clarkson. Clarkson had returned home after working in New York with the lofty aim of forging her own architectural vernacular that she dubbed “ModerNests”: a series of wooden residences inspired by classic modernism.
Completed last year, the final design reflects Clarkson’s affinity with architectural heroes Louis Kahn, Tadao Ando and Albert Frey: modernist designers who harness sunlight and raw materials to create pared-down yet warm and inviting spaces. “We want to build flexible, timeless homes that will fit into every stage of a family’s life,” she says. The architect composed the exterior by arranging wooden planks in a patchwork, accentuating the grain and texture of the native Douglas fir. The building is mostly black with a shaft of organic brown at its base. “Black is recessive, so when you have a black house amid colourful houses, it’s a quiet statement,” says Clarkson. “Besides, it highlights the natural grain and is a nice backdrop for both greenery and snow.”
With fenestration from Ontario’s Ross Windows – a skylight over the stairs and 3-metre floor-to-ceiling sliding doors opening to the courtyard – natural light is abundant and makes the modest home appear bigger. “There’s no need to make your footprint any bigger,” says Clarkson. “The responsible thing for developers is to build small and smart.” The windows on the south side of the house are deliberately positioned high or as streamlined openings on the side to allow sunlight to fill the room without compromising the owners’ privacy. An added bonus is that the wall obscures the view of an ugly fire station across the road.
Meanwhile, the street-facing kitchen window is positioned at a height that allows the owners to see out as they cook and prevent passers-by from peering in. The fridge and dishwasher are concealed beneath white Catfish Design cabinets and Caesarstone countertops. This creates an illusion of space and makes for a seamless transition from the cooking to dining area. Here a six-seater Bertjan Pot slim table sourced from furniture retailer Avenue Road can be found.
Everything that could be concealed has been. All the power outlets are placed behind base boards and each switch sits at an easy-to-reach height. “We want to keep things as clean as possible and strip away anything that is distracting,” says Clarkson. Solid-wood flooring, artwork and carpets were picked for their ability to evoke warmth and personality amid the clean lines of the space.
The living room looks out into the courtyard where a neat row of cedar trees creates a sense of privacy and a wall to shield the house from prying eyes. Designer Mazen El-Abdallah was tapped to furnish the interiors, which include mid-century paperchord and soaped-oak lounge chairs by Hans J Wegner and the Lauren model sofa designed by Montréal artist Lysanne Pepin. “None of the pieces are loud or obnoxious; the owners prefer better over more,” he says. This sensibility is echoed in the upstairs lounge-cum-workspace, which is centred on a custom-made brass-and-walnut bookcase. The only television in the house is buried in the basement.
The master bedroom is upstairs at the front of the house. The drooping canopy of a tree outside softens noise from the street. Within the bathroom is a spa, illuminated by a sliver of sunlight from the skylight overhead. The whole room is lined in limestone. Clarkson scored a good deal for the surplus tiles when the city’s Four Seasons was being built. Her clients didn’t want a glass partition for the shower so Clarkson opted to tip the floor slightly to let water drain away.
A custom ship’s ladder leads to Clarkson’s favourite part of the house: a decked green roof. While the courtyard below has been manicured by landscape architect Elise Shelley, the greenery here is deliberately unkempt. “You have wild flowers and a mixture of different grasses; sometimes birds fly in and drop off other seeds and species,” says Clarkson.
The rooftop is also where the couple retreats in the evenings when the weather is fair, rounding off their day with a glass of wine and an unobstructed view of the city skyline. It’s an unusual pleasure in the busy neighbourhood but exactly the kind Clarkson intended to create. “We want to change the fabric of Toronto, little by little.”
Architect Kyra Clarkson’s first job was to find the right property. The 1830s workers’ cottage she and her clients opted for was not for sale, so Clarkson spent a year cajoling the owner into letting it go. She also canvassed the neighbourhood to foster goodwill while applying for construction licences from the city authorities.
“The scale needs to be right and it has to sit well in the fabric of the neighbourhood, especially because it’s modern and doesn’t fit anything else here,” she says. The deed was transferred in 2013 and construction started the following day. The house was completed the following year.