Go with the flow

Viewed from the sidewalk, the recent Toronto residential projects by Atelier Reza Aliabadi (rzlbd) are typically as restrained as a good Bay Street business suit. Charcoal House (2010), for example, is a flat-topped building with an entirely sober profile. Only the jaunty scatter of windows on the streetside facade hints that something more interesting may be going on inside. Go behind that trimly tailored exterior, and you immediately find out what, and just how exciting, that something is. Reza Aliabadi fashioned the interior space of the house into a small landscape that rises and sinks, bunches and relaxes. This active architectural setting proposes choreography for the people who dwell there. Aliabadi’s art has nothing to do, that is, with manufacturing the versatile “universal space” cherished by the modernists. Rather, it’s all about the making of very local micro-environments that together add up to maps for contemporary living. 

Like Charcoal House, Aliabadi’s 5/6 House, completed in 2011 deep in the post-war Toronto suburb of North York, embodies a contrast between spare outside and rich inside. Here, however, the difference is even more pronounced. Nothing in the exterior form of 5/6 House gives away the drama unfolding within. And the humble surface treatments – stucco cladding, aluminum siding and such – are all very plain. Though considerably larger than its traditional pitched-roof neighbours – the usable zones add up to about 5,000 square feet – and obviously more modern in shape and style, the house sits quite respectfully among the other, older residences along the street.

The graceful, unforced ingenuity of Aliabadi’s excellent interior design, however, is apparent at once to anyone who steps over the threshold. Like those in Charcoal House, the levels here rise and fall across the wide expanse of the two-storey building’s ground floor. This variety creates a series of places or stations within the volume, each subtly distinguished from the next. 

The space allotted to the open-plan conversation and dining areas, for instance, is gathered at the centre of the building, well away from the street. The strong visual rhythm of white walls and dark trim gives this zone a certain air of calm formality and seriousness. The effect is reinforced by the lofty ceiling, which floats about 11 feet off the floor. The compressed kitchen area, on the other hand, hovers at the edge of a wide void. This cavity in the ground-floor level mirrors a massive oblong volume (containing the master-bedroom suite) that bears down into the lower territory from the second storey. 

Going up from the level of the kitchen, dining and living precincts, a short flight of steps leads to the family room, which stands atop the garage and faces the street. The atmosphere here is new: casual and lively instead of formal, public rather than private. Daylight floods into the room through large south-facing windows and an enormous skylight cut into the double-height ceiling. This place belongs wholly to the day and the sky and changing weathers, not the underground darkness to which family rooms and dens are too often consigned in more conventional housing schemes. 

The architectural scenography changes again as the visitor descends through the void near the kitchen via the glass-faced staircase, its thick treads cantilevered from the wall, to the fully finished basement level. A long rectangular reflecting pool, fed by a gentle waterfall, has been incised into the dark stone floor of the room where the staircase ends. Quiet north light filters through the tall glass doors just inside a sunken patio at the rear, and a shaft of sunshine, striking through the void from the family room, occasionally illuminates this sanctuary. A bar at one end suggests that the largely empty space is sometimes used for entertaining. If so, the disturbance would be fleeting, and the prevailing sense of contemplative stillness would quickly return once the party was over.

Not every person, of course, wants to live in a work of architecture as carefully programmed as this one. The complex fabric of 5/6 House, its unusually forceful channeling of internal spatial flow by thrusting volumes and gaping voids, insists that outfitting and decoration be as rigorous as the design itself – a demand some homeowners might find uncomfortably strict. 

That said, it’s hard to imagine any dweller in the cold regions of Canada who would not be glad to live in a residence so full of light. Toronto is a city, Aliabadi has written, “where severe weather conditions created houses with small openings.”  5/6 House is the architect’s most recent imaginative response to this familiar condition, and surely his most striking one to date. The name he has given the project recalls his design strategy, which involved, first, a division of each floor into six parts, then the subtraction of one part. The formal move generated the broad openings and gaps through which natural light penetrates the building envelope and shines into every corner of the house. 

If this sounds like an abstract, schematic way to go about crafting an interior, the math doesn’t show in the finished product. 5/6 House is all poetry of a modern kind: resolved, serene and clean-lined, and completely free of unnecessary ornament and commotion. It expresses Aliabadi’s flair for place-making: the very contemporary sculpting of space into novel shapes with distinctive identities, like the sunny clearings one can find in the midst of forest gloom, or the narrow intervals between old buildings that suddenly open the city’s floor to the sky.  cI