July 1, 2007
A Kinder, Gentler Brutalism
A Toronto architect embraces the famously unforgiving style.
Every style of architecture arrives at a point when it’s too old to seem current, too new to be chic again. These days the late Modernism first seen in the 1970s is in that awkward stage. So when architect Pat Hanson went to look at the home her young clients had bought to renovate—a Brutalist brick town house in a block of Arts and Crafts residences near downtown Toronto—she had to reassure them that they had made a good decision. “They were uneasy about the house,” recalls Hanson, principal of the local architecture firm GH3. “The potential was not at all apparent.”
Except to Hanson, who saw a “quite thoughtfully designed” 1975 house hidden by an unsympathetic renovation. A builder had imposed country-style ornament and a traditional floor plan on the open-plan interior, blocking views and creating an unattractive muddle of styles. “People lose their faith in Modernism,” Hanson says. “They buy a Modern building and then just default to traditional ideas of the house.”
By reverting to an open plan, Hanson was able to restore the 2,000-square-foot building to its former glory while suiting her clients’ desire for “livable minimalism.” Taking advantage of the clear-span construction and fine site, she opened up the main floor completely and installed a two-story curtain wall on the back to reveal a verdant hillside view. In the living room, MDF-and-marble millwork hides the owners’ piles of art and architecture books and sundry housewares. And at the middle of the house Hanson carved a showpiece spiral stair into the central atrium.
The polished interior—dominated by dark-stained engineered oak, white Corian, and Carrera marble—seems at odds with the roughness of the exterior, a Kahn-ish volume of light-brown brick. But Hanson paid homage to the house’s simple construction by attending to space rather than fussy details. “I don’t like reveals,” she says. “Call it minimalism, but I prefer to hide it all.” In the master bedroom a series of grand sliding doors floats on hidden hardware, but what’s magical is the view behind them, which overlooks a wooded ravine and the double-height volume of the living room below. It’s the simple luxury of good space in harmony with the landscape.
And Hanson is pleased that her clients, who both grew up in architect-designed houses, are savvy enough to see those timeless qualities in the finished home. “It’s not about aesthetics,” she says. “It’s about context and understanding the time at which this house was built—and the moment we’re living in now.”