Mid-century Modern

written by John Bentley Mays
photography by stacey brandford

Fifty years ago, the low-slung, glass walled Modernist house was the aloof queen of upscale suburban chic in residential architecture. Take a close look at good surviving expressions of the style, and you quickly understand why this kind of design captured the avant-garde imagination at mid-century and inspired countless popular imitations. Typically, a house done in this manner featured clear spatial flow, clean lines and a flat roofline, openness to natural light and to nature, and, frequently, a distinctive American-Southwest wrap around a small, hard forecourt.

That was the kind of house that a corporate executive and his wife found and purchased on a shady street a suburb of southern Ontario a few years ago

It was a good, well-wrought piece of Modernist architecture – not a masterpiece by a signature designer, to be sure, but a sturdy foundation for the thoroughgoing renovation and expansion the new owners decided to undertake. The challenge the family set for itself was to develop the building to fit the needs of five active people, while retaining the Modernism of the original.

The result of their labours is an elegant, modest etude in white and light grey, with rich wood trim and stone floors, that opens gradually, gracefully from its wide-swinging, sheltered wooden front door. Instead of the grand lobby favoured by clients of the monster- house ideal, the vestibule is simple, unassuming. This welcoming room, positioned off to one side, opens onto a passageway that leads to the more intimate parts of the house. Glazed along one side to provide an intimate view of the front courtyard, this corridor leads the visitor past the original house's living room – now a restful, quietly appointed salon – and past the entrance to the wing containing the family's bedrooms.

The flowing spatial sequence concludes in the heart and central volume of the house, where the owners and their children live most of their domestic lives. The kitchen is in this open-plan, double-height forum, together with the dining area and a small, slightly elevated space set aside for relaxation and the couple's books. A light staircase rises from the dining area to a second- storey playroom for the children. It's a delightful eyrie up in the trees that grow tall around the house.

The central interior spaces of the building are lit by walls of glass that emphasis the traditional Modern commitment to openness to the environment. Two of these walls that meet at a rear corner slide away, providing a dramatic moment of continuity between the library and an exterior deck, and the back garden beyond. This is not a garden, however, in the Southern Ontario vernacular– evergreens and hollyhocks, that kind of thing. In an interesting, poetic nod to the Southwestern origins of the classic Modernist style, the home owners have created vignettes of the desert landscape outside, both fore and aft.

A shallow, rubbly trench out back suggests a dry stream bed. This effect is continued in the front garden, where a field of rubble (that matches and continues the one in the rear of the property) makes it appear that the whole house sits athwart a low gulch of storm-strewn, water-washed stones. This bit of desert scenography undergirds the atmosphere of restraint that prevails in the interior.

The rational ambience inside is further reinforced by the owners choice of furnishings. The Modernist note of transparency and visual economy is struck by the glass expanse of the table, done according to a design by Carlo Scarpa, in the dining area, and by the simple, stainless steel tubular underpinnings of chairs and stools. There are no superfluous gestures in this furniture; each piece is self-contained, and seems determined to take up no more space than absolutely necessary.

This austerity is usefully offset, however, by the art the owners have chosen to adorn the interior walls of the house. A cycle of expressive works by the distinguished First Nations artist Carl Beam encircles the central height halfway up to its flat roof. In a glassed-in bay at the foot of the staircase up to the children's' playroom is a large Pop sculpture by Vancouver writer and artist Douglas Coupland. It is a green plastic blow-up of a toy modern solider, combat rifle at the ready – a figure exuding welcome dynamism and a certain eerie playfulness in its otherwise strict context. The home owners like war toys of the more whimsical variety, by the way. Among their smaller treasures is a collection of toy animals toting tiny grenades and AK-47s.

The rebuilding of their midcentury house is an instructive instance of creative architectural re-use – a phenomenon that will surely become more common as real-estate prices rise and the popularity of sustainable development rises with them.

Of course, for many couples with growing families and a desire to live comfortably in a good neighbourhood, the ideal solution would be an original, tailored-to-fit house by an architect. But if ground-up design is out of financial reach or otherwise undesirable, the next best thing – still a very good option– is to find an affordable older house that's too small, then revamp it into something more suitable. To do so is good stewardship of existing resources, a fact of urban life that is surely going to become more important in the years to come.

The home owners have practiced such good stewardship, recycling an older house in a way that preserves the structure's sound architectural principles, bringing up to date a mid-century vision that still has the power to please us and serve contemporary needs.

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