Seeing the light

It was, of course, the frequently doctrinaire modernist Le Corbusier who declared, “Concrete is the marble of the 20th century.” One could be forgiven for being somewhat jaundiced about his conclusion, faced as we are daily by the many dreary concrete curtain-wall buildings that plague our cities. The best concrete Brutalist buildings of the postwar period, such as those of Paul Rudolph, remain largely the darlings of architecture historians and aficionados. Where the Swiss architect got it right, however, is that both marble and concrete fail when poorly used, frequently becoming kitsch in the case of marble and
light-sucking banality for the latter. But Arthur Erickson’s use of concrete as structure and minimum surface in his Eppich House (also UBC’s Museum of Anthropology) and Ron Thom’s exquisite mix of rubble stone and concrete at Trent University, for example, demonstrate how evocative the material can be when used with skill.

In the provocatively titled essay “The hidden beauty of the sewer rat” (for the Stylepark website), architecture theorist Nora Sobich points out more recent innovative uses of concrete that largely slip below public consciousness of how the material can function. Herzog & de Meuron’s printed concrete wall of the Eberswalde Library “looks like modern graffiti art,” she writes, while the new Kuntsmuseum Liechtenstein has a black polished concrete facade “sanded and polished so smoothly that it acts like a mirror.” By mixing concrete with optical glass fibres, it is even possible to use concrete both decoratively and structurally to produce semi-transparent walls.  

But an avant-garde manipulation of the properties of this ancient if publicly disliked material is not Montreal architect Henri Cleinge’s preferred approach. In a seamlessly integrated home and separate office for his family and his successful residential architecture practice, respectively, basic concrete is employed as structure and finish both inside and out. Located in a part of north Montreal’s Little Italy neigbourhood that mixes light industry and urban residential, the modest L-shaped complex is a series of rigorously minimalist concrete and Corten steel boxes, each measuring 19 by 19 feet, doubled across the street-facing elevation and stretching back threefold toward a rear lane.  

In response to Montreal’s skewed street grid, which means the house faces southeast, the Carleton University–trained architect has placed the rear-extending house wing tight against the existing building on the east property line. This allows for a generous southwest-facing garden enclosed along the side and the rear lanes by a richly textured Corten fence. The importance of this placement for the home’s interior is the amount of light that floods into the two rear volumes – incredible light, says Cleinge, given its “tungsten quality” or remarkably bluish tones in the city’s inevitable snowy winter.

The manipulation of light to enhance the singular qualities of basic concrete, he explains as we tour the house, reflects the tradition of Louis Kahn’s work, an approach still present in the work of various Swiss and Japanese architects. Unlike many modernists, Cleigne and the architects he admires view it not as manufactured but as a “natural material that captures the idea of making, of being a liquid stone…that embodies a rough materiality linked to a process.” At the same time, raw concrete walls embellished with polished concrete floors and light can engage in a complex and evocative interplay. The way the light reflects off the hard but textured concrete, how it bounces off the polished floor reflecting the colours and shadows of the trees and the clouds, Cleigne continues, makes the space rich and dynamic. (There is also design bravado in working with a material that offers few second chances once poured!)    

Entry to the house component is defined by a deep entrance through a first storey set off from the otherwise grey concrete facade by the rich, evolving patina of Corten cladding. A large window signals a front bedroom and bathroom suite. Like the entrance to a Wright house, a compressed hall leads to the centre block, a voluminous 20-foot-high great room producing a powerful explosion of light and space, topped with a linear skylight that washes the monolithic, double-height concrete wall on the east side with sunlight. 

Cleigne’s treatment of the other three interior walls, on the other hand, sets up a fascinating if almost precarious sense
of structural imbalance with first-storey voids spanned by the seemingly monumental weight of blank concrete walls. On the south end, the first-storey wall is a bookcase bracketed by the entrances to the front bedroom and entrance halls. The opposite end is completely open into the kitchen, save for a “slot” for the stairs leading to the second-storey bedroom. On the west wall, a first-storey wall of glass windows entices the garden into the house, while the unbroken wall above, here painted white, serves as a gallery space for a fine collection of 20th-century modernist paintings Cleigne inherited from his father.

There is an almost monastic quality to the house’s spaces, more defined by their simplicity of form, materials and details than by the marked presence of humble raw concrete. In addition to the beguiling play of light, the counterpoint use of naturally stained cedar on all the ceilings, walnut for the kitchen island, cabinets and wall screening the stairs, as well as pine window frames and maple stairs, adds richness and softer textures. Black granite tops the island.  

The kitchen is also opened up to the garden with massive window/door combinations on two sides. Of note, the house’s first floor has been kept low to the ground to enhance the sense of connection to the exterior landscape. The same minimalist quality is sustained in private spaces, including the master bedroom although again a generous window treatment allows the city skyline to provide animation.

Cleigne’s residence/office is not designed for a broad audience; rather it expresses both an architect’s approach to “making” and a clear preference for space that stimulates calmness and personal reflection. cI