Over the past decade, Toronto has shed its stuffy puritan legacy to become the most vibrant and cosmopolitan metropolis in Canada. A forest of glass condo towers has sprung up to accommodate immigrants from around the world as well as disenchanted suburbanites who prefer to live close to the center. The arts are flourishing, and top international architects have teamed with the best local talents to enrich the castellated splendor of Victorian monuments with bold new structures. The lakefront has been reclaimed from industry and is being transformed into a linear park. In contrast to this explosion of high-profile development, the partnership of Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe has been quietly seeding the city and the province of Ontario with meticulously crafted galleries and residential buildings. Now, on the edge of a ravine in north Toronto, they’ve created a house that achieves an even higher level of beauty and originality.
It was commissioned by James Stewart, a mathematics professor who writes calculus textbooks and is an accomplished violinist. The house takes its cues from these two disciplines and the owner’s love of curves-marking a radical departure from Shim-Sutcliffe Architects’ preference for orthogonal geometries. Stewart collaborated with a professor of architecture to prepare a detailed program for a live-work complex that would double as an acoustically refined performance space. He investigated several leading American firms before deciding to entrust the job to a local practice and give them a free hand. By utilizing the footprint of the house that formerly occupied the site, the architects were permitted to extend the house to the edge of the ravine and step three stories down its steep side. That gives it the character of a tree, with its roots in the mossy floor of the forest and its crown reaching for the sky.
The Integral House - named for the elongated “S” that is a key symbol in calculus, and for the way that every feature is part of a larger whole-conceals its complexities from the street.
The ground story is clad in oak boards that open up to a glazed entry framed by angled wood fins, and the upper level is wrapped in sweeping curves of translucent etched glass. The spatial play of the interior is revealed as one steps inside. There’s a vista across the stepped levels of the living area, out to the trees in the ravine, and down to a double-height performance space. The sitting and dining areas double as galleries overlooking this void. A narrow stair ascending to the bedrooms was developed with artist Mimi Gellman as a site-specific sculpture: hand-cast plates of laminated cobalt-blue glass are supported on bronze brackets attached to steel cables and lit from above. It’s the one bold color statement in a material palette of pale limestone, white oak, and poured concrete. The angled plates and the clear glass stair treads shimmer in the direct and reflected light.
Working with engineers and acousticians, Shim-Sutcliffe created an open volume with a curved bay that accommodates up to 150 people for recitals of chamber music and dance. Three free-standing vertical concrete elements rise through the five levels of the house to provide structural support and accommodate a chimney, stairwell, and elevator shaft. Slender triangular steel-plate columns provide additional support around the perimeter. These are concealed within oak fins that are spaced irregularly to block the sun or to frame views. “At each window, one’s relationship to the site is vertical, classical and individual,” says Shim. “At the scale of an entire elevation, it is horizontal, panoramic and cinematic”.
The cinematic quality is pervasive. As one moves through the house, the perspectives are constantly shifting. Each of the fins has a subtly different profile and orientation. They were sketched, and studied in full-scale mock-ups, before being translated into CNC fabricated templates. The staircase that leads down to the performance space has a ceremonial character; a more confined stair descends to the study and guest suite on the level below, and to the sybaritic indoor pool and gym that open onto the ravine. In contrast, the bedrooms are plain white spaces that are bathed in natural light from expansive windows and the diffused glow through the etched glass rain screen. Though they are only one level above ground they feel airborne.
At every turn, there are echoes of Alvar Aalto - in the response to nature, the sinuously curved plan, and the lovingly crafted details. But there’s no sense of mimicry. The serpentine plan was a natural response to the contour lines of the river valley and winding paths through the forest. Shim-Sutcliffe have always worked hands-on, and their Weathering Steel House, created several years ago for equally discerning clients, is impeccably realized. Here they had the time, the freedom and the budget to push further, and make every element a work of art that contributes to the whole, like notes in a musical score. The cast-steel door handles are as inviting as outstretched hands, and the copper tubes that top the stainless mesh balustrades are thickened and wrapped in leather at the points of greatest use. Limestone floors are cut away at the base of the fins and the quadrifoliate wood-clad columns that provide additional structural support. Suspended lights are shaded by clusters of copper half cylinders. Still to come are the furnishings that the architects have designed and fabricated to augment the owner’s collection.
The house has a high level of sustainability. It is heated and cooled from 23 geothermal pipes, located beneath the driveway. Plantings on the flat roofs provide an added layer of insulation, and all the materials were chosen for their durability as well as their appearance. Like Aalto’s Villa Mairea, the Integral House is intelligent and inviting, lucid and sensuous, and it is destined to become a classic.