East meets west

Axiis Architects’ spare, Asian-influenced design for a suburban Toronto home is a case study in Zen duality: North American conventions filtered through a distinctly Japanese outlook on comfort and use of space; a vast main room that compresses smoothly into cozy, human-sized spaces; and an exterior that is unapologetically modernist, yet harmonizes sweetly with its more conventional neighbours.

Axiis’s two principals, Robert Podreciks and Larry Dang, originally worked in corporate architecture, for such firms as Parkin Architects and Xystus Architecture Inc. (in the case of Podreciks) and Murray & Murray and Baldwin & Franklin (Dang). After leaving to operate separate one-man shops in the early ’90s, they teamed up to open Maison d’Etre, an architecture gallery in Toronto’s First Canadian Place. A few years ago, the pair returned to architecture, concentrating on small, primarily residential projects. Clients like this home’s owners are an architect’s dream, they say -knowledgeable and passionate about architecture and what they wanted, but also willing to step back and let the architects realize their ideas.

The female half of the client couple is of Japanese descent, and both of them had lived in Europe for years; they presented Axiis with a very pure, detailed concept. “They wanted a modern, open-concept – really open! -home, minimalist and highly serene,” says Podreciks. “Pure white with touches of black -no colour anywhere. Each room would flow naturally into the next, and one floor to the next as well. Detail had to be kept to a minimum: no trim or baseboards, no window coverings, not even doors between rooms.”

The front elevation, with its top gable, a smaller roof over the garage and conventional landscaping, is just enough like its neighbours not to raise any hackles. The front door is set within a central two-storey box of glass and horizontally banded steel (which glows, at night, like a Japanese lantern). It opens onto a sheltered foyer, a prelude to the main event: a single, wide-open space that takes up the bulk of the interior shell, with a 20-foot ceiling high above and a huge rear window framing trees and sky.

Windows were a crucial element, as the clients’ concept of duality included melding inside and outside. The gloriously gigantic window in the great room implements the concept most dramatically, of course. But elsewhere, it wasn’t quite so straightforward -Podreciks and Dang had to contend with proximity to neighbours (as no window coverings were allowed), sometimes indifferent views, and a variety of settings, from the ennobling expansiveness of the open areas to cozier corners such as the bedrooms. They solved the modesty issue at the front simply by setting the windows back in the elevation, such as the kids’ bedroom window over the garage roof setback. In other bedrooms, and particularly with regard to the window by the breakfast nook at the end of the kitchen, they deployed another particular of Asian architecture. As Podreciks explains, “In Japanese homes, horizontals are seen to impart a sense of hominess and comfort -like Shoji screens -so we used strong horizontals where we wanted a sense of intimacy, such as by the breakfast table.”

The more personal areas of the house are organized within a colonnade along one side of the main space, bisected by the curved edge of the second level. On the main floor, the powder room, stairwell and kitchen/breakfast area are arranged shotgun-style from the front door back. There’s a minimum of defining walls, and these are pierced by small cutouts and interior windows, as if to further break down barriers.

Up the stairs on the second level, a long gallery lined with a disappearing glass and steel railing curves from the study at one end to the master bedroom at the other, and here again, part-walls define rooms. Yet there’s no sense of being exposed -the master bedroom, for example, is set back far enough from the gallery edge that it feels positively cozy, like a hollow tucked in a cliffside.

The bathroom, with its Japanese-style soaker tub, was another item on the clients’ must-have list. A staple of day-to- day life in Japan, these tubs, often set in the floor, are deep enough to soak the shoulders and wide enough to comfortably accommodate two. For the architects, it presented an engineering as well as an aesthetic problem: such a tub could weigh many hundreds of pounds when full and occupied -and it was to stand in the centre of the second floor. Extra reinforcement (cleverly concealed within the structure so that no sight-blocking support posts would be needed) and a high-capacity hot water tank took care of the technical issues; a curve of black tile from the shower section to the tub pulls the design together neatly.

The owners love the way the home integrates the landscape with the calm, uncluttered interior: “Trees and sky enter the interior of the house, making each room seem bigger, and the change in lighting conditions through the day creates a daily drama.” It may be as close to the neighbours as any other suburban development home, but inside it’s an entre into a whole other way of thinking.