Farzad and Connie started thinking about building a house five years ago when they were living in Cambridge, England. Farzad was finishing his doctorate in management and Connie was working for a Dutch bank. Their two kids were young, and the couple wanted to settle in Toronto, where Farzad grew up (Connie is from Hong Kong). They imagined a house that was minimalist but kid-friendly, environmentally conscious but not visibly so, and most importantly, adaptable. They hired the architect Paul Raff, and the resulting space, on a leafy street near Yonge and Eglinton, feels like a swanky yoga studio minus the mirrored walls. The kitchen is flanked by two identically sized spaces, which can be used interchangeably, as the living room or dining room—Farzad and Connie sometimes swap the two by season, eating next to the big backyard window in summer and cozying up by the same window to read in winter. The basement is kitted out with a kitchen in case their kids boomerang in their 20s and want their own space. And although the main level of the house is, right now, perfectly suited to family life, it was designed to be converted into a one-level retirement suite in the future, with Farzad’s office becoming a master bedroom and the entryway powder room becoming an ensuite.
For devout foodies, scavenging through public parks and roadside ditches to pick wild, esoteric ingredients is an almost sacred ritual. Although the yields are small, the thistles, berries and greens they collect are nutrient-packed, deeply flavourful and, perhaps most importantly, not what the neighbours are eating.
But gourmands aren’t the only ones out foraging. Pioneering designers, including furniture makers and architects, are uprooting their own raw materials to make everything from cabinetry to structural columns. Turns out there are lots of aesthetic possibilities when working with forage. Roadside weeds can be boiled down to dye textiles, for example, while a naturally fallen tree can make a fetching coffee table.
Outside of funhouses and roller rinks, warped floors are usually considered a defect rather than a virtue. They make it impossible to place furniture (unless you like wobbly tables), are the bane of health and safety nuts (two words: trip hazard) and often warrant a call to a contractor (it’s possible the subfloor needs replacing).
But avant garde architects and interior deisgners have been embracing uneven surfaces for the past few years. It’s partially for the aesthetics — there’s something undeniably striking, even if disconcerting, about a rippling ground plane — and partially for the health benefits. An influential 2005 study by the Oregon Research Institute suggested that walking on uneven terrain lowers blood pressure and improves balance (which diminishes the inherent trip risks). The scholarship only confirmed what practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have long believed — that walking on challenging topography is a good idea (which is why many elderly in China make a routine of strolling, dancing and standing on rugged, cobblestone walking paths).
In real estate, as in love, there are homes that you have a fleeting crush on, ones that you want to have a family with, and others that are just so out-of-your-league gorgeous they become the stuff of fantasies. Such is the case with 87 Highland Crescent, which I’ve loved from afar for years and which is now on the market. Am I going to be placing an offer? Given an asking price of $6.85 million, I’m afraid my feelings will have to go forever unrequited: with Canada’s maximum 25-year mortgage terms, even if I (miraculously) had a 10 per cent down payment, and borrowed the $6.2 million balance, every month I would have to give the bank about $37,000 (assuming a reasonable interest rate of 5.24 per cent per year). $37,000. A month. That’s more than my yearly take home pay. The only way I could swing that would be to invent a time machine, go back about 10 years, and tell my teenage self all about Facebook so I could scoop Mark Zuckerberg. Anyway, the house actually appeared on the market two years ago at a higher price — $7.995 million — so whichever gazillionaire buys it can sleep easy on his mountain of money knowing he got a relative deal. David Bowie is rumoured to be a fan of the home’s architecture, so maybe he’ll snag it for Iman. Sigh, below is why I love it so much.
Note: This is a (mostly) fictional account of a sheltered, Canadian university student arriving in notoriously violent Johannesburg for the first time. Enjoy.
By the time I arrive at Tambo International Airport, it’s midnight. My flight is almost seven hours late. I was hoping to catch Johannesburg’s legendary crimson sunset from the plane, but the sky is black as I land. More worrisome, the driver who was supposed to pick me up and take me to my hotel downtown is no where to be found. I wait in arrivals until it’s almost empty — save for a few security guards — before I accept that whoever was supposed to meet me has long ago come and gone and isn’t coming back.
It’s June. When I left Toronto it was warm and summery. South Africa feels like winter. I’m wearing a black fleece zip-up, gloves, dark wash jeans, hiking boots and a hat. I’ve come for a two-week student workshop on urban design in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Its tagline is Can the Divided City be Reunited? I watched Sarafina as a child and Tsotsi as a teenager but otherwise didn’t know anything about the city or the country when I signed up four months ago. I was half way through my third year of architecture school and sick of sitting in a classroom. I wanted to feel some dirt beneath my finger nails. I wanted to see the world. Plus, my professor said I could use the conference for extra credit. That’s why I came.
Milstein Hall at Cornell University. Image from dezeen.com. Photography is by Philippe Ruault
Last week, on my way down to New York City, I stopped at Cornell University to see their new Architecture, Art and Planning building, Milstein Hall. The OMA-designed facility looks like a Mies van der Rohe-style box propped up on a concrete ant hill, floating not incongruously between the kind of Victorian and Georgian structures one imagines at an Ivy League school. Some of the design is quite subtle — part of the exterior is clad in elegantly stripped Turkish marble — while some of it is showy and loud — a giant, 50-foot cantilever reaches over University Ave., almost-but-not-quite touching the 150-year-old Foundry Building across the road. I wasn’t sure if this latter gesture was an act of aggression — like a bully announcing its presence to a meek, helpless victim — or one of kindness, like an outstretched hand between a young spunky kid and an old, fair lady. This ambivalence basically describes my reaction.
What I liked: The building is porous. As people walk or bike by, there are interesting opportunities to look into spaces that are normally much more cloistered in a school: a lecture hall that has windows on three sides, or a submerged auditorium/crit space with large clerestories. Continue reading →
Over the Victoria Day long weekend, my boyfriend and I are driving down to New York City. We’ve gone every year for the last four, and each time we visit we discover new reasons to love the city. In 2011, for example, we rented road bikes and toured around Manhattan, then crossed over the Brooklyn Bridge, checked out Prospect Park and went down to Coney Island. It took us a whole day and we were exhausted by the time we hit the Atlantic, but it was great. We were both impressed by the miles of dedicated bike lanes that made cycling feel so much safer than in our home town of Toronto.
We might bike around again, but I think this trip is going to be more arts and culture focused. Here’s what we’re thinking of seeing.
When I’m looking for a piece of fantasy real estate, I usually don’t go for detached, suburban (albeit in a very Dwell magazine sort of way) homes that sit north of the 401 (which, for people who don’t live in Toronto, is a bit like living on the moon). But when I saw 20A Senlac Rd. on Torontolife.com today, I made that soft, sad whimpering noise that I make when I’m thinking “damn, I’m poor and I wish I weren’t.” With an asking price of $1.7 million, it would take me over 40 years to save up a 10 per cent down payment, and then the rest of eternity to pay back the mortgage. If I had kids, I would especially long to live here. True, me having little ones is as much of a stretch as ever being able to afford this house, but whatever paternal feelings I have were stirred by the ravine setting and the perfectly decked out little nursery. Sigh, here’s how I’ll never decorate the house for the kids I’ll never have.
The Place: The four bedroom prefab was designed by celebrated American architect Ray Kappe — who has, incidentally, been featured by Dwell magazine.
It’s possible to say that I’ve had an intimate relationship with both Toronto and Vancouver. I was born in Canada’s largest city, and have lived here on and off (currently on) for my whole life. It’s my steady, and I love it the way I love an old, comfortable sweater. I’ve also traveled west a few times to visit. There’s something about all the mountains and trees that used to really spark my imagination. But my most recent trip to Vancouver — a three month stint in 2008, when I was on a university work term — cured me of any desire to live on near the pacific. It’s pretty, true. Yet aside from the great skiing and hiking, it can be kind of tedious. How many lattes can someone drink without wanting a bit more edge? I have to admit, however, I’m a little jealous right now of a couple of their architectural projects. Might make a trip necessary again in the future.
Modern architecture is often derided for being austere, yet over the past few years, I’ve definitely noticed some clever, playful things inspired by the work of Mies van der Rohe, Arne Jacobsen and Le Corbusier. Toys, gingerbread houses and even a bird house have brought a certain down-to-earth charm to some of the most iconic buildings of the twentieth century, making them more accessible to people who wouldn’t necessarily know the difference between Ronchamp and Fallingwater. Here are some of my favourites.
If I had a backyard with birds in it (especially birds wearing black turtle necks), I would definitely buy Monique Engelund‘s tribute to Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.