Brick box turns modernist palace – The Globe and Mail – #Toronto #realestate

Architecture

Brick box turns modernist palace

From the street, the only indication of the collaboration of discrete styles within are two frosted glass boxes projecting from the original fade.

From the street, the only indication of the collaboration of discrete styles within are two frosted glass boxes projecting from the original fade.

With ‘Villa Discrete,’ architect Ivan Saleff creates a glorious dialogue between old and new

Dave LeBlanc

From Friday’s Globe and Mail

With age comes wisdom. Proof lies in the lines and gullies of the face: a road map to trace a lifetime filled with laughter and worry, joy and sorrow.

Buildings, too, can tell their story. Starting clean and new, the decades bring pockmarks and scars to tell us of harsh winters, blazing summers and, sometimes, of past renovations: a bricked-in window or the zig-zaggy lines of an old staircase etched onto a wall.

Wise designers know how to preserve these architectural tales; they know that recycled brick trucked to a site to create instant “heritage” is a poor substitute for the real thing. They know that new and old can co-exist – thrive even – when a little extra thought is applied to a project.

Ivan Saleff is such an architect.

Affable, opinionated, passionate about modernism and prone to colloquial turns of phrase, the 57-year-old studied under, worked with and once lived in the basement of one of the wisest architects of the past century and of this one: Philadelphia’s Robert Venturi, winner of the 1991 Pritzker Prize and co-author of the seminal 1977 study Learning From Las Vegas.

Mr. Saleff’s recent adaptive revamp of a mildly moderne Forest Hill buff brick box is so sublime a marriage of distinct parts, to describe it in the usual room-by-room fashion would be like a sportscaster doing a play-by-play at the ballet.

It does not matter that, from the foyer, one turns right to the formal living room/gallery space (with furniture also designed by the architect) or to the left to sit at the scalloped dining table with a custom cast-glass light fixture overhead (both designed by Mr. Saleff), or that the kitchen and family room are part of an enormous, light-filled modernist box grafted onto the back.

No, what matters is how old and new pieces of architecture engage in a glorious dialogue, or that the drywall work is so good it could be the Platonic form of drywall.

“Villa Discrete” is what Mr. Saleff calls it. Not only are his clients discreet (indeed, they do not wished to be named), but, physically, from the street, the only indication of the collaboration of discrete styles within are two frosted glass boxes projecting from the original façade.

The front of the house sits on a floating stone platform that gives the illusion of a stage: “I photographed the crap out of Crown Hall in Chicago, Mies’s building [which features a similar stage],” the architect says.

Inside, it takes a few steps to get a sense of the enormous changes that have taken place. While the pivoting front door is new, original octagonal windows remain; in the dining room is an original fireplace, but it’s been raised to dining height; original double-hung windows in the formal living room keep original proportions alive, yet they look onto Mr. Saleff’s clean, white modernist addition.

Walk into that addition, sit on the family room sofa, and everything changes: Now those windows are just a small part of what was once the exterior brick wall with blemishes, lines and pockmarks.

“It’s kind of hard to establish character in a modernist house – you can use woods and furniture to a certain extent – but you have this wall,” says Mr. Saleff, who also teaches at the University of Toronto. “It’s like an old face.”

So, in order not to deface that face, Mr. Saleff has treated the transitional area between the old and new sections as an atrium or, in his words, as “the slot.” Not only is the sculptural steel staircase positioned here, clerestories rain natural light down into the (new) middle of the home while acting as a heat chimney. So, in similar fashion to the ROM’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal or the MaRS Centre, new respects old by laying only the gentlest kiss upon it.

“The client really went the distance for maintaining it,” Mr. Saleff says. “It’s orthodox modernism [with] Venturi consciousness.”

It’s “green,” too, with a hydronic heating system, high-performance doors, windows and foam insulation, heat recovery ventilators and “the best curtain wall you can buy.”

“It was supposed to be a small renovation,” the homeowner adds. “We knew that when we bought it we wanted to make it a bit bigger – and both my husband and I love architecture – so it was, literally, over a cup of coffee that we said ‘Why don’t we just do it modern, because that’s what we love.’”

Since they also loved the home’s presentation to the street, most of the bold modernist strokes are in the rear addition, which looks onto a lap pool capped by an original Maryon Kantaroff bronze and a “living room” complete with a brick fireplace.

It’s a home where inside meets outside as easily as old meets new; it’s wise in how it balances secret boldness with public modesty; it offers up such refinement – from wound-leather stair rails to zebrawood cabinetry – that it calls to mind Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous “God is in the details” – except that “everything was designed by Ivan,” finishes the homeowner.

“There is nothing he did not do, did not correct, did not go on site, did not tell them how to construct it. Nothing.”

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About Tariq Sultan
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