New ideas for a modern residence
Architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe draw on fresh mathematical models for a Toronto ravine home
JOHN BENTLEY MAYS
Friday, April 13, 2007
For about the past 25 years, advanced theorists of architecture -- one thinks especially of Peter Eisenman in this regard -- have been urging architects to engage more vigorously the new ideas coming from science, technology and the philosophy of information. What would happen, for example, if designers set aside the Newtonian model of space as a neutral, empty and infinite grid, and began to think of it (in the manner of some contemporary mathematicians) as a rich fabric of events and incidents, folds, cinematic dissolves? Imagining space in this way is not only intellectually provocative. It also suggests a fruitful way forward for architectural design -- away from the box and all its variations, to forms more directly responsive to the new nature that science is giving us.
There is no better local example of what I'm talking about than the spacious residential project known as Integral House, now nearing completion on a Toronto ravine. Designed by the small, influential Toronto office of Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, this brilliant scheme was undertaken at the request of James Stewart, a mathematician, musician and author of widely published mathematical textbooks. When finished, Dr. Stewart's house will likely become, not only a building of great beauty and material refinement, but also a case study in the application of new architectural thought to the enduring problem of the modern residence.
The full drama of the project is not immediately evident from the street. In the two-storey composition of its front, an etched-glass attic, glowing like a lantern at night (and containing bedrooms), rests lightly on a broad wooden base. In its modest scale -- its striking visual effect is another matter -- this façade harmonizes with other luxury homes in its neighbourhood.
Integral House shows its more formally energetic side at the rear, as it boldly steps down the ravine to a swimming pool. Each of the house's five levels is different from the others, registering changes in program and in the building's relation to the sky and the forest on the slope. The entry level, for example, is a high overlook, offering clear views into the house and its alternating rhythms of grid and organic form. A full level down, in an area intended for musical performances, the space majestically expands to double height, up to a clerestory, and outward to frame views of the trees below.
The geometry of the design is dominated by the curve, which is expressed most eloquently in the undulating curtain wall that encloses upper levels of the house. This wall is an ingenious invention that features vertical oak-clad fins canted outward between vertical panes of glass and running in a clear sweep along the façade's curvature.
While this complex façade treatment lends Integral House muscular sculptural presence, formal elegance is only part of its job. Its more important task is to establish ever-changing relationships between the interior and the nature beyond. Standing in one position in the performance space, the visitor finds the wall almost opaque. Step sideways, and views open up. The inward folding of the screen creates small enclosed harbours of nature outside, or, bulging outward, it creates bays that hover in the landscape.
But the impulse behind the fabrication of this unusual perimeter wall -- to produce endless events, surprises, small episodes of light and view -- drives the whole design of Integral House.
As one moves up and down, alongside and around the chimney, elevator shaft and stairwell that constitute the vertical axis of the house, the experience of the surrounding nature changes accordingly, from tree-top brightness above, to the shadowed loam of the forest floor. Higher up in the house, one is still in the city; below, one is in the ravine. Yet moving around within the building itself, the visitor finds the spatial properties of the architecture continually changing, as scales vary from monumental to intimate, and as one area dissolves into another in the remarkably fluid plan. The result is an architecture of event, more cinematic than static, with stories continually emerging from its sturdy matrix of stone, glass, concrete and wood.
The history of Integral House is well laid out in an interesting exhibition now on view (through Apr. 28) at the Eric Arthur Gallery of the University of Toronto's faculty of architecture, landscape and design, at 230 College St. Writing about the book that accompanies the show -- though she could easily be talking about the display -- Brigitte Shim says: "By describing and revealing a process that documents the scheme from initial sketches through to working drawings, we hope to demonstrate that design does not happen magically." But the outcome, very rarely -- yet surely in the case of Integral House -- can be magical indeed.