Twin peaks

Montreal’s storied Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood occupies a broad plane that falls gently away from the mountain on its east flank. It is a dense urban community of narrow, tightly compacted, well-treed and mainly residential streets but crisscrossed by some of the country’s finest commercial boulevards including iconic St. Urbain as well as St. Denis, St. Laurent and Mount Royal. 

Not far from the many delightful shops and cafés of the last, a previous client of Blouin Tardif Architecture Environnement purchased an entire commercial operation just to obtain its building site. He then asked Alexandre Blouin to replace the existing one-storey garage building with two conjoined homes, each 2,500 square feet. The result is back-to-back three-storey units covering the entire 25-by-100-foot lot with their entrances on different parallel streets. Skilfully manipulated to ensure privacy and copious natural light for the interior, Blouin’s design avoids replicating immediate historical precedents while still contributing to the tight but varied morphology of the streetscape. 

Much separates the resulting houses from their neighbours. Single-family homes are rare on the Plateau and both are unadorned minimalist boxes. Despite large asymmetrical windows, says Blouin, they appear relatively closed compared to nearby older residential buildings. Their garage doors are unique but do reflect those once found on the now-demolished commercial building. Their heights, however, replicate those of older multi-dwelling neighbours. Finally, two carved openings, deeply recessed garage and entrance doors at street level and fully framed openings to the top-level terrace, provide animation. 

The most difficult design challenges relate to the organization of the interiors. Important for the client, says Blouin, was privacy and desire for views to the plateau, city and mountain. “But the most crucial issue was the search for light, how to get natural light deep into the main living spaces.” His response to all three demands was to carve out a hole in the middle, wrapping living spaces in each of the mirror units around second- and third-level open terraces. While the full first floor of each basement-less residence contains a garage, entrance, home office, leisure room and mechanicals, the second and third floors house bedrooms (as well as a sauna) and more public living spaces, respectively, all folded around the 11-foot-wide terraces. 

On the second level, two bedrooms stretch across the street front while the master suite occupies the rear. Connecting the two sleeping areas is the circulation space, dominated by a two-storey transparent glazed wall framed with black aluminum and overlooking the totally private inner terrace. This glazing wraps around the master suite and extends up to also front the living room on the third level. Ascending across the glass terrace wall are wood and steel stairs whose balustrades of seamless glass almost completely de-materialize. 

If the second level is U-shaped with enclosed spaces arrayed around its terrace, the third assumes an open-plan L-shape. The living room takes up the back while the space along the stairs overlooking the void serves as the dining area. The front is divided between the kitchen and the third-level terrace with the latter’s framed view out to the city.

Given the importance of teasing in as much natural light as possible through the terraces helped by soaring 12-foot ceilings on the third floor, there might be an expectation of a palette of ubiquitous modernist white. Certainly the units’ clean, linear lines and minimalist detailing ensures a distinctly modern aesthetic but, in line with the lesson so well taught by the great Alvar Aalto, Blouin employs considerably more than just a few accents of varied, richly toned woods to ensure a warm, natural and decidedly homey sensibility. 

The interior space almost glows with the contrast between the relatively limited pristine white walls and the abundant wood planks stretching across the floors and ceiling as well as the bathroom and terrace walls. Russet-toned western cedar, used on the garage doors, is brought inside for the third-level ceiling of the client’s unit – a.k.a. Mentana unit – as well as on the bathroom ceiling and one wall. “Cedar on the outer wall of the terrace,” says Blouin, “makes it a textured feature wall that changes with weather and light including artificial light at night.” On the other unit – a.k.a. Boyer unit – however, the cedar ceiling is absent, left white to respond better to its north-facing direction. 

The most striking of the woods is the the exotic reddish-brown African rosewood with cheeky natural blonde streaks used on the two upper-level floors. Supplied by the client, this West African hardwood is also used for Mentana’s sculptural, ziggurat-shaped stairs. (Oak is used in Boyer.) Lighter but no less rich tones are found in the kitchens’ open shelving made from sapelli. Set against dark grey walls, this West and Central African hardwood, quarter-sliced to provide a glossy striped grain, is a mellow, slightly orange colour. The same lighter wood is used on the first level in both units for the office desks and cabinetry.  There the contrast of a dark grey wall is complemented by a natural polished concrete floor. 

The Siamoises Mentana-Boyer residences introduce externally austere but not off-putting cloistered housing to the evolving Plateau. Like a medieval cloister, the terraces provide sheltered  “gardens of light” that bring alive the sumptuousness of the home’s abundant woods.