Rooms with a view

In the early 20th century, the young Turks of Modernism embraced Frank Lloyd Wright’s renowned portfolio with its flowing use of space countering the limitations of discrete rooms. Their affection was not returned and their initial admiration largely evaporated. Superficially, it was the great American master’s commitment to – as Alfred Loos put it in his famous manifesto – “the crime of decoration” that separated the two schools. At a more profound level, however, it was Wright’s understanding that successful architecture must respond to a location’s sense of place, its genius loci, rather than some universal zeitgeist that divorces design from the here and present that separated the two schools. Not all Modernists succumbed to Modernism’s limiting ideologies. Most notably, Finland’s Alvar Aalto drew back after his much admired Bauhaus-influenced Paimio Sanatorium and went on to produce such wonderfully contextual work as the Villa Maria. If postmodernism contributed one thing, it was to lead many Modernists back to the idea that all great architecture is first regional architecture.  

Architects Johanna Hurme and Sasa Radulovic, founding principals of the exciting new Winnipeg firm of 5468796 Architecture (2007), were both trained at the University of Manitoba’s School of Architecture where a strong environmental design base continues to dominate. (One wonders if Manitoba novelist Gabriel Roy’s powerful and unsentimental invocation of the influence of the prairie landscape on people’s lives continues to influence.) Hurme, however, was also born and raised in the architectural hothouse that is Finland and spent a year as a teenager on a Manitoba prairie farm before attending university. In contrast, Radulovic grew up in Sarajevo with its many competing and expressive vernacular styles. Their award-winning Boheimer residence, designed while both were with Cohlmeyer Architecture Ltd., is located on an acre of land along the Red River on the southern outskirts of Winnipeg. It employs a lively play of forms, maximized engagement of its interior with the surrounding environment, a commitment to the play of natural light, an attention to materiality and a complexity of interior spaces – creating a highly functional but almost playful family home intricately suited to its prairie landscape setting.

The architects, with Hurme as the partner-in-charge, started with an existing but much-altered 1920s house and a thorough distillation of how the clients and their two young children conduct their lives. An initial reworking of the in-situ house resulted in an oversized block that soon gave way to a cheeky reversal in form. The original house was dismantled except for its foundation, which became the walls of a sunken courtyard – Radulovic calls it the “ghost house” – around which was wrapped three new wings. The exposed concrete of the courtyard walls also serves as a barrier that permitted both the adapted reuse of the old basement and the construction of a new lower-level family room, both below the flood plane. Each wing is a unique and animated volume clad in almost black hardboard and powdercoated aluminum siding that contrasts strikingly with deeply protruding eaves and window frames of rich, clear stained fir.  

Within the protected arms of the U-shaped house facing away from the river, a bridge stretches across the courtyard “moat” to a front entrance signaled by a tall, very slim volume that reaches across the house. Perhaps as Norwegian theorist Christian Norberg-Schutz has observed about similar vertical elements in Finnish architecture, its height makes present that which is absent in a flat landscape. Once through the door, a narrow but soaring space acts to visually telescope attention directly to the river. Again, as Norberg-Schutz has written, in flat geography with limited features, a river often acts as a powerful edge that helps define one’s placement in the landscape. Thus, how the house unfolds is designed to ensure the river’s shore is frequently framed and almost always a visible, orientating datum.  

At the point of entry, one is on the lowest level of the house’s primary floor. To the right, up a half flight of stairs, is the parents’ deftly privatized bedroom wing. To the left is the 1 ½-storey living room with a fully glazed wall confronting the Red. On the living room’s far side is a half wall of black powdercoated aluminum that frames a minimalist fireplace but is also cleaved by another short stair. These stairs ascend to a glistening white kitchen of foil-covered cabinets and quartz countertops. Off the kitchen, additional spatial complexity is added by the treatment of the remaining three-storey children’s wing.  Two bridges span a double-height void that drops down to the below-ground courtyard level. One bridge slips across in front of the massive glazed wall separating the lower family room from the exterior courtyard (which not incidentally also acts as a safe enclosed play area for the children) and terminates at the door to the garage. On the house’s outer wall, the second bridge, a narrow mezzanine, starts with stairs ascending to the third level’s two bedrooms and a play area and leads to stairs descending to the family room.

The interconnected complexity of the interior creates open flowing spaces, both horizontally and vertically. Visual sightlines are multiple and varied. This includes views through the house and outside to the river, the gently undulating prairie landscape, and the retained mature oaks, maples and conifers. In addition, there are views that cross the exterior courtyard and then back into other areas of the residence. In addition to generous glazing, minimalist interior detailing helps maximize this transparency.  A series of clear acrylic shelving units on the interior bridges as well as the unadorned glass sheets for stair rails are particularly effective in sustaining this intended character.         

At the same time, there are also both subtle and strong contrasts in tones, materials and texture. The house’s predominately white walls, washed by strong prairie light or from primarily recessed lighting – as well as its polished concrete floors in the living and family rooms – are neutral in colour. The fir widow frames and baseboards, along with the strongly grained poplar floors, however, add rich hues and high-textured grains.

In the end, says Hurme, it is the ever-changing exterior landscape that provides the visual punchlines for the home’s interiors. Yet, if the house is expansive in its almost single-minded embrace of the exterior, the controlled sizes of the different domestic spaces also ensures what Radulovic calls a “cocooning” sense of intimacy within a “cozy” scale. The house demands that you live with a constant awareness of the sometimes harsh prairie landscape, but it also offers equally a fine retreat for the engagement of family life. 

Photography by Dan Harper