Integral House: a New Mansion in Toronto

       The 10-year evolution of Integral House, the recently completed Toronto home of mathematician and violinist James Stewart, began with a brief that could hardly have been shorter or simpler. Stewart wanted curves. He wanted much glazing, both on the exterior and inside (the latter to showcase his collection of glass art). And, more unusually, Stewart wanted a performance space for an audience of 150, all wrapped up in what he called an “architecturally significant” package.

       During his long quest for a designer to grow a house from this brief, Stewart sought out some of the world’s most prominent architects, including Frank Gehry (who agreed to provide a scheme), Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl, before choosing, in 2000, the home-town team of Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, principals in Shim•Sutcliffe Architects. The reply of this pair of talented designers to the brief is a highly figurative 15,000-square-foot home for a celebrated author of mathematics textbooks who likes to organize musical evenings along classical lines--“I wanted to be an impresario,” Stewart told me--and a minutely detailed, ambitious building that mates a recital hall with a private home in a romantically expressive envelope. (The client never considered going the more usual philanthropic route and endowing a free-standing concert venue: The decision to have in the house “is because I would have more control over the concerts.”)

       The full drama of this consummately aesthetic project is not immediately evident from the street, nor was it supposed to be. The context of large, traditional family homes, close by on both sides of Shim•Sutcliffe’s façade, precluded grand statements at the level of the shady Rosedale sidewalk. In the sturdy two-storey composition of its front, a green etched-glass attic, which glows like a lantern at night (and contains Stewart’s bedroom suite, media room and other amenities), rests lightly on a broad wooden and concrete base that spreads to the narrow limits of the property. This marked modesty at street level enables the house to slip unobtrusively into the neighbouring fabric, and it creates a subdued prelude to the more robust architectural ensemble beyond.

       Integral House shows this more formally energetic side at the rear, as it boldly moves away from the city and steps down the steep side of a wooded ravine to a swimming pool and terrace. Each of the house’s levels is different from every other, registering changes in programme and in the building’s relation to the sky and the forest on the slope. The entry level, for example, is a high overlook, offering clear views into the descending house and its alternating rhythms of grid and organic form. A level down, in the area designated for Stewart’s musical evenings, the space majestically expands to double height, up to a clerestory, and outward to frame views of the forest. Descending still deeper, the visitor discovers Stewart’s ample study in a bay of glass opening toward the bottom of the ravine.

       As Stewart had specified, the geometry of the design is dominated by curves, which are expressed eloquently in the undulating curtain wall that encloses middle levels of the house. (The curves are purely artistic. Stewart said that, though the curvature could be described mathematically, he did not supply equations to make it.) This wall features vertical oak-clad fins (each one different) canted outward between panes of glass and running in a clear, undulating sweep along the facade’s curvature. A sharp, decisive meeting of the glass wall and the interior flooring (a light French limestone) has been avoided. Instead, the floor stops short of the wall in a low curb, giving the impression that the wall continues downward past the floor-plane in a cascade of wood and glass.

       While this complex facade treatment lends Integral House muscular sculptural presence, formal elegance is only part of its artistic agenda. Its more important task is to establish ever-changing relationships between the interior and the nature beyond. Standing in one position before the canted fins in the performance space, the visitor finds the wall almost opaque. Step sideways, and views open up. The inward billowing of the screen forms small semi-enclosed harbours of nature, or, bulging outward, it creates interior bays that hover over the landscape. There is no living room as such in Integral House; intimacy is afforded by small seating areas spun out of the downward and outward flow of interior space.

        The impulse behind the fabrication of the house’s unusual perimeter wall--to produce endless events, surprises, small and ever-unfolding aesthetic episodes of light and view--drives the whole design of the project, down to such details as the custom-crafted door handles and the precise enjambments of wood and stone. (Digital imaging and automated manufacture--“the computer as an aid to the soul,” Howard Sutcliffe said--saved years of time in the design process, and empowered a kind of Arts-and-Crafts refinement in the planning and outfitting of the house.)

       As one moves up and down, alongside and around the chimney, elevator shaft and stairwell that comprise the strong vertical roots of the house, the experience of surrounding nature changes accordingly, from tree-top brightness above, to the loamy shadows of the forest floor. Yet walking around within the building itself, one finds the spatial properties of the architecture also continually changing, as scales vary from monumental to small, and as one area dissolves into another in the fluid plan. The result is an architecture of event, more cinematic than static, with different stories--of compact urban life, of relaxed country retreats, musical recital-halls fondly remembered--emerging from the structure’s imposing matrix of stone, glass, concrete and wood.
       The marriage of concert room and private home, however, has its problems. Perhaps inevitably, the project falls into in two distinct parts, one very spacious and the other more intimate, that are reached by two very different itineraries. (As inspiration for this bifurcated scheme, Stewart cites Ron Thom’s Massey College, at the University of Toronto, where he lived as a graduate student, and where small live-in digs and large common areas are nested comfortably close to each other under a common roof.)
       The recital hall below the street-level entrance of Integral House is approached by a graceful stair, descending through switch-backs and stages, and wide enough to accommodate the vertical circulation of large groups of invited guests. The sense of this part of the house, despite the presence, off the main route, of a kitchen and dining area, is public, official and important. The human self assumed in this space is social, part of a collectivity--the community of music-lovers, for example, or a lot of people gathered by some common concern. (In the house’s first year, Stewart reports, requests to hold fundraisers in the recital hall have been pouring in.)

        On the other hand, the master bedroom complex, which occupies the top level of the house, has about it the atmosphere of a deluxe penthouse apartment or sumptuous eyrie for one individual, much like what we might expect in a guest suite for performers installed high in a concert hall. It is reached from the entry level by a straight flight of steps lined with deep blue glass panels crafted by artist Mimi Gellman and held to the wall with custom-designed, custom-cast metal brackets--a direct, businesslike route up, that is, unlike the grander pulse of the staircase dropping to the recital hall. The result is a division of space that notably, but not fatally, breaks up the unity of the interior composition.

       Another problem with Integral House--for me, I should say, not for the client-- is its deliberate situation within the discourse of the “architecturally significant” house. In every prosperous time and place, of course, successful people are occasionally struck with the Xanadu fantasy--the longing to go beyond merely providing for themselves comfortable places to live, to contribute something substantial to the history and culture of architecture. And to be sure, Integral House does embody a formidable amount of advanced research, both formal and technical, on the part of the architects. There are no half-measures here; every cranny and angle and fixture has been thought out with rigorous care.

       But such dreams of building a great and exquisite dwelling that expresses the best thinking of the age can be treacherous. The outcome might be Frank Lloyd Wright’s memorable. paradigm-shifting Fallingwater--but it could easily turn out to be something merely grandiose, along the lines of E.J. Lennox’s Casa Loma, the pseudo-medieval Edwardian pile that glowers over downtown Toronto from its high perch on the St. Clair escarpment. Because history has been invoked by the client, history alone can be the final judge of whether Integral House will be regarded by the future as a masterpiece of 21st-century architectural design, or as merely another piece of evidence for the excesses of Toronto’s most recent Gilded Age.
       My hunch, however, is that the impact of this deeply interesting, fastidiously researched and designed building will endure long past the era of its construction--even if it can’t quite decide whether it’s a cultural institution or a private residence. In common with its venerable precedents--Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoie, Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House, and especially Aalto’s Villa Mairea come to mind--Integral House represents an effective experimental think-through of the problem of the luxury dwelling in modern times, and, as well, a remarkable contribution to the architecture of exuberant aesthetic gesture.

Published in Canadian Architect, April. 2010