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Toronto ravine home: a subtly-moulded Modernism

A ravine home by architect Siamak Hariri is at once generous and rigorous. At 11,000 sq. ft., it is a large house, but careful manipulation of interior spaces has banished any hint of chilly vastness.

 There's an interesting book to be written about the deluxe modernist houses that hover over Toronto's lovely, deep ravines.
The available ravine-side building sites are often awkward in shape and small in size. They are hedged about by restrictive city codes and environmental regulations. But despite the difficulties, more than a few architects have risen to the challenge of designing for these places, and produced houses that are among Toronto's most engaging examples of the residential building art.
Any book of the kind I'm proposing would probably feature the handsome north-Toronto ravine residence recently crafted for a busy family of five by Siamak Hariri, principal in the firm of Hariri Pontarini Architects.
Situated on a street of traditional luxury homes and slightly curved, the house's pale French limestone façade rises at the front like an exclamation point – abrupt and certainly too imposing for its genteel streetscape.
But behind this bold introduction, the house reaches out to embrace the nature nearby, and unfolds in a series of expansive vistas that beautifully frame the sky and the ravine forest. Light is welcomed into the interior from all directions through great windows, banishing the shadows that often afflict large homes.
This L-shaped house is indeed large by any measure. There are 8,000 square feet of liveable space above grade, and another 3,000 square feet below the street level. (A four-car garage has also been tucked under the building.) But any hint of chilly vastness has been avoided by the careful modulation of the interior spaces.
The sequence of living room and dining room, the most ceremonial part of the house, for example, is arranged in one flow that sweeps from the front façade to the terrace and swimming pool, on the edge of the ravine, at the rear. Continuity is also maintained by the calm, simple palette Mr. Hariri has employed throughout the project: warm wood frames on the windows, cream-tinted plaster on the wide walls, oak and limestone flooring, touches of walnut and teak.
Yet here, as in other places in the building, the space is moulded subtly to create differences in mood and atmosphere. In the living room, the ceiling is very high, and the warm wood floors are washed by light entering from a skylight following the curve of the streetside façade, and from broad windows opening on the front garden. The sense here is formal, or as formal as this gracious house ever gets.
As the space moves into the dining area, the ceiling drops, suggesting intimacy, and the view shifts from the front of the house to the terrace and forest in back. By following this wide architectural gesture through the house from street to terrace, the visitor leaves the city behind, and comes close – or as close as any sensible Torontonian wants to come in the city – to wild nature.
All formality is discarded, however, in the adjoining spatial sequence of kitchen, family dining area and, down a couple of steps, the television room. The kitchen area is arrayed around a wall unit and island executed in black granite, but this rather stern, sombre ensemble is softened by the light floors and appointments in the rest of the zone, and by the large windows opening toward the forest and terrace.
You may think: This is where everyone really lives, this is the heart of the house. But, as far as I can tell, you would be mistaken. While outfitting and furnishing the home are going slowly, there is no part of it that looks unlived-in. A third-storey loft that could some day become a home office or exercise room is currently in use as a pad for the slumber parties the couple's teenaged daughters like to host.
The below-grade component is dominated by a basketball court that sees frequent use by father and son, and their friends. And the couple enjoys entertaining on a grand scale, making even the living and dining area, the most ample and dignified space in the house, regularly come alive with the comings and goings of neighbours and friends. Every place in this house, that is to say, gives evidence of a very active, energetic programme of use.
Mr. Hariri's response to this programme, as we have it incarnated in stone and wood, is at once generous and rigorous. The geometry and general conception of this house – apart from its surprisingly ostentatious front – are staunchly modernist, and so is the refined sensitivity of its interior to nature, air and light.
While Toronto's ravines have attracted the attention of numerous architects, few other interior treatments, I suspect, have more appeal than this one.
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