A deeply folded roof is just one bravura touch in Toronto practice Partisans' complement to a historic home
Eat, swim, sleep. That, in a nutshell, was the brief for a new building in the grounds of a historic manor house which is home to a family of five in Southern Ontario. With its indoor pool, kitchen and two bedrooms with bathrooms, the pavilion, Gul House, is a place to swim (a favourite activity of the mother), to cook (which the elder teenage son is passionate about) and to sleep visitors.
But these guest rooms can also become office and therapy space for the mother’s practice, which is a likely option for the immediate future. In the longer term, anticipating that the youngest of the three children will leave home within the next 10 years or so, the whole building can become the heart of a bed and breakfast business. This would be a logical extension of the activities of the father, who sold his marketing company a couple of years ago and became a purveyor of high-end coffee and upmarket bread — so the breakfast part of the future B&B is already taken care of.
The loosely defined programme of the new pavilion is the outcome of the clients’ involvement in the process and their broadminded take on what architecture entails, not only to meet their immediate needs but future ones.
When the family moved here from Toronto a few years ago, they asked architect John Tong to enlarge the main house with an additional living room and to open up the kitchen. During the renovations the family lived in the adjacent cottage, another historic building, but when it burnt down they commissioned Toronto-based practice Partisans to design a new project on the same site.
The location is subject to strict heritage and natural preservation regulations. The manor dates from the early 19th century, old by Canadian standards, and the property is situated within the Niagara Escarpment, a landscape that has evolved over millions of years of erosion.
The pavilion had to stay within the perimeter of the previous cottage, somewhat limiting the novel architecture which emerges out of the sloped site. It consists of an elongated volume with the pool (and a sauna), and an adjacent stack of two dominoes, as Partisans’ co-founder Alex Josephson likes to call them, containing the kitchen and bedrooms.
The pool building has one long facade, which is partly finished in wood, but is mostly a large, sliding glass wall. The underside of the roof is clad with wood as well, which continues in the wooden ceiling of the pool. The ceiling drops on one side to follow the roofline which is folded to let a seemingly levitating black steel stair cut through. The stairs in the fold lead to the roof terrace and a secondary entrance in the upper of the two wooden boxes with curved corners. Although part of the pavilion, the dominoes are also distinctively different, in the manner of the mythical centaur.
The two parts, dominoes and pool building, might have a similar skin but their presence is very different. Whereas the pool element manifests itself as a fluid gesture, the stacked dominoes are a solid object. Such duality can be found in other Partisans projects, for instance in the recently completed Gusto 501 restaurant in Toronto, a large rectangular Cor-ten steel and glass box whose interior is animated by two undulating screen-like terracotta walls.
Aside from the use of wood, the architecture of the Gul House avoids any reference to the traditions and conventions of building in the Canadian countryside. The pavilion is an urban building, which is appropriate for a site less than an hour away from Toronto, the fourth largest city of North America.
The pool ceiling not only drops at the end, it also has a long fold parallel to the pool, which is a very effective way to give the space a cave-like intimacy and to frame the view. It also conceals a massive beam that allowed for the large cantilever. To craft the ceiling Partisans used bent wood that is tailormade under high pressure to follow the required curves. This material, which is more commonly used in furniture than in buildings, is indicative of Partisans’ approach to design.
For this practice, detail, furniture, interior space, architecture, and even urbanism are all part of one fluid continuum. Architecture might be conceived as a piece of furniture that can morph into an interior, an indoor space can become an urban interior. Architecture, ornament, structure and technique are deeply entangled, not unlike the way in which art nouveau everything comes together in total works of art. The objects Partisans designed for the ceiling of the new foodcourt of Union Station in Toronto are an example; these ear-like blobs integrate air conditioning, light, loudspeakers and acoustic insulation in what can be seen as either architectural ornaments, or ornamental architecture. They show that Partisans does not decorate its buildings, rather it constructs ornament and ornaments construction, in the same way as the centaur is an equine human, or human equine.
In a comparable way, the functionality of the basin of the swimming pool is just one aspect of it. As a reflecting pool it is also an ornament of the space; most of the time it is not used for its primary functions – swimming or lounging in the hot tub end.
The other part of the building contains a large kitchen on ground level, with a vast counter of Brazilian stone offering ample space for cooking and communal meals. A wall of built-in cupboards separates the kitchen from the stairs leading down to the basement and up to the two bedrooms, whose bathrooms, one with dark green tiles, the other pink, offer custom-made comfort.
Both the pool house and the dominoes are completely efficient in their organisation. The only true folly in this project is the fold in the roof, which separates and binds the two parts, determines the pavilion’s exterior expression and gives character to the interior space of the pool. The fold, a self-supporting thin shell structure of cold-formed wood, adds a crucial dose of chutzpah to this architecture. It is a kind of bravado which is typical of Partisans. Yet it is quite unusual for Canadian architecture, which too often succumbs to a regrettable better safe than sorryness. As a design office, Partisans distinguishes itself as being unapologetic about doing more, and making more, instead of less out of architecture. It is an maximalist approach, with an equally voracious attention for form, space, detail, finish, light and craftsmanship, and an eagerness to take on any kind of design project.
Partisans’ insatiable lust for architecture and design has been fed so far with relatively small projects. Among its other realised works are a spectacularly curvy wooden sauna, the maelstrom of the interior of Bar Raval in Toronto, and several dynamic pieces of furniture and lighting. Like the pavilion shown here, each of these projects reflect an architectural ambition that exceeds the actual dimensions and programme, and it is exactly this aspect which gives Partisans’ work power and promise.
Structure Blackwell Structural Engineers
Interior design Mjölk
Sliding glass AMG/Panoramah
Stair Ornamental Ironworks
Wood ceiling Pure Timber
Concrete Calibre Concrete
Pool Oasis Pools
Millwork Thorncrest Kitchens
Wood cladding Brenlo
Doors/windows Marvin Windows and Doors
Lighting fixtures supply Lightform
Furniture supply Mjölk
Stone tiles Owen Sound Ledgerock
Bathroom tiles Zellige
Light switches/outlets LeGrand
Appliances Wolf/Sub Zero
Fixtures Vola, MPRO
Kitchen sinks ONO