Clarity in Mystery

Montreal’s Rue Waverly in the city’s northeast Alexandra-Marconi district is a street in transition. With rail yards just to the west but dynamic Little Italy on the east, MU Architecture refers to the neighbourhood as “a mysterious district that has in recent years experienced a notorious gentrification.” And, they readily admit, their recently completed 3000-sq.-ft. Waverly Residence is very much part of the “notorious” transition of this mixed light industrial, low scale office/warehouse and residential community. The three-bedroom house for two doctors and their young family respects the area’s simple architectural forms but inside provides an elegant, almost classically inspired plan that is remarkably family friendly.

To the street, it presents a simple, two-storey volume consistent with neighbouring buildings but clad in an oxide-infused brick that shimmers subtly when washed with Montreal’s ozone saturated light. Deeply extruded steel window frames, an ultra-thin metal canopy over the centred and clear-glazed front door as well as the grey painted steel panels wrapped around the north laneway corner add animation in a language consistent with the area’s manufacturing history.

Both MU partners, Charles Côté and Jean-Sébastien Herr, assert that “clarity and fluidity are two main characteristics throughout all our projects…with clear axis and limited circulation spaces.” But once through the front door a certain “uncomfortable” mystery is introduced. Immediately ahead, a grey volume stretches almost across the width of the generously deep entrance vestibule. Composed of minimalist detailed floor-to-ceiling door panels this imposing wall is flanked by double corridors retreating to the home’s communal spaces – do I go right or left?

Indecision aside, the doors in this comfortably large, ceramic-tiled entrance provides access to deep closets and a sizable mud room for strollers, skis or even a bicycle. A young family’s invariably messy functional requirements are met while encouraging minimal visual clutter. But the carefully centred entrance and dual side corridors also signal a specific concept applied throughout the house. “We explore in each project a new or rethought concept and in Waverly this is symmetry,” says Herr. Thus the vestibule becomes the mise-en-scène for the house’s contemporary but classically balanced plan.

Down the right corridor and immediately behind the grey volume, a steel staircase with open risers and red oak steps ascends across the house’s width. A landing overlooks the kitchen and its island through a large opening partially infilled with seamless glass. Like the vestibule and stairs, the kitchen slices across the house. The landing serves as a place for guests – or kids – to kneel and converse with the chef. It also ensures the long skylight above the stair floods the interior with natural light.

Beyond the kitchen island stretch two equally sized living and dining areas bisected by a totemic, two-way fireplace and opening onto a modest garden. Defying convention, the yard, reached through large patio doors bracketed by wide, floor-to-ceiling glazing, is kept almost level with the first-level floor to support a classical inside/outside unity. “All these elements, including large windows on the second floor,” says Côté, respond “to a need to link with the exterior to accentuate the sense of place.”

Reflecting the architects’ objectives of “clarity, simplicity and elegance,” details are kept crisp and minimal. But they also believe strongly in “adaptability” or the attribute of reflecting a sense of place, in part by using local but not necessarily standard house materials. Thus the fireplace is wrapped in acid polished steel reflecting industrial neighbours. The kitchen ceiling is natural cedar planks while the flooring is a richly mottled chestnut.

Upstairs, the storage/bathroom volume defining the first floor is repeated – again with two corridors on either side – but now shifted behind the stair to define the master bedroom. A second skylight brings light directly into the upper bathroom. Two additional bedrooms stretch across the front. The sizable landing embracing the stairwell will eventually accommodate an open office or library.

Elegant but family friendly, clean and crisp but richly textured, the Waverly Residence deftly aligns discrete elements or “segments” with balance and symmetry to break down any corridor effect while maximizing openness.

Photography by Julien Perron-Gagné