A few years ago I was walking down Coxwell Avenue, below Gerrard, and saw an amazing house. Snuggled between two very ordinary residences, 157 Coxwell was a jewel shining amidst trash, an exotic bird in four story flight. I stopped dead in my tracks to contemplate how this beauty came about in a city more known for uniformity than individuality.
And of course, I had neither my camera nor my phone with me to capture the sight. So I carried on my way, but often found myself thinking about the house. Mondrian with a hint of Mandelbrot, I thought.
I’m not one of those who search out architecture. The grandeur of most contemporary mansions featured in glossy magazines only prompts a sigh for the waste of money and the egotism of those who build shrines to their own wealth and positions. But I do appreciate individualism, and that’s something we sorely lack in Ontario.
Our older homes tend to reflect our British backgrounds. Our colour palettes generally run to beiges and greys with the occasional red brick. On the plus side, that same craving for “over ‘ome” means that we rely heavily on gardens, trees and legally protected parklands, often the only bit of colour to be found for miles.
Cut to yesterday, when I once again found myself at the corner of Coxwell and Gerrard. The bus was taking forever, it was a lovely day, and I was wearing my favourite sneakers. So I decided to walk towards Queen, and once again have a look at that extraordinary house.
As I approached, I saw two men excitedly talking and gesturing towards the structure, which seemed to have undergone some reconstructuring. The back of the house had been extended, and there were eight new foundational supports visible. Plywood covered some of the colour blocks.
This time, I had my camera ready. I snapped a shot of the side addition, and then moved to get a full shot of the front, smiling and nodding at the two men. They asked me why I wanted photos of the construction, and I told them of my interest in the house’s appearance.
As I explained, one of the men laughed, and introduced himself as Rohan Walters, the original architect. His friend was another prominent architect, Daniel Karpinski. They were there to see what changes were being made to the structure, as it had been sold, and the new owner wanted to put her own stamp on her residence. Changes included an elevator installation, and of course, a great deal of additional floor space.
I asked Rohan if it was hard for him to see changes made to his design. He admitted that he was worried about changes to the overall composition of the building. He’d spent a great deal of time in first imagining how the original structure would look. Here’s some of his thought process:
“Then it happened. I’m sitting amongst ‘The Group of Seven’ paintings. Being amongst paintings, particularly these paintings are healing for me. With my face in my hands, I looked broken. I raised my eyes to the paintings and then it hit me: the colours of the sky, the flora and fauna. The various hues, depths, tones, intensities and responses over the day and seasons. That is what I had been missing. True colour is never alone; it is a tapestry of ever changing and yet knowable themes.”
Daniel, Rohan and I continued to chat about the importance of colour in residential construction. We agreed that Toronto tended to conform to neutral palettes, with rare exceptions, and that other cities, like those in St. John’s, Newfoundland had a more joyous and welcoming appearance. In fact, St. John’s is amongst the eight most colourful cities in the world.
We continued to talk about the importance of an infusion of colour into cities. Daniel told me that the citizens of the Soviet held East Berlin were so depressed by the grey, bleak architecture of the time that they would covertly throw hollowed eggs filled with paint at the buildings. A colourless city is a joyless place.
At home, I researched the history of the project, and found several informative articles, including a four part blog Rohan wrote for “Reading Toronto,” in 2005. Some of the innovations Rohan brought to the construction, begun in 2002, seem tremendously rational, but had not been previously considered in construction codes.
“This Coxwell house is, arguably, the first house built since the 1997 edition of the OBC not requiring a heat recovery ventilation system. I pitched the head mechanical engineer at the city. I showed him my calculations for the house’s natural air infiltration and ex-filtration in concordance with non-combusting appliances such as the ‘direct vent’ furnace, condensing dryer, warm floors and single air volume that did not combust any internal air. As such the air exchange rate met the facts and intent of the code. “
His own home, “Triangle House,” possibly the smallest triangular building lot in the city of Toronto at the time, was built in 2005 for himself and his children, and carried on the colour blocking theme, and utilized such nuances as
“A combined heating and domestic hot water system, orchestrated electrical and plumbing designed with baseboard and pilasters, comparing the vibrations and sound of this frame home with that of a masonry home because of the concrete topping on top of the joists and limiting the building footprint with pier construction, the concrete positioned to act as a ‘thermo mass’ assisting in heating and cooling depending on season, and so on…. a teaching tool for myself: the possible from the improbable.”
I thought about our unlikely and stimulating conversation as I continued to walk towards Queen Street, cutting through parks and side streets. The Beaches has always been a desirable area, not only for the beach access, but for the sense of community and family nurtured by the residents.
In pursuit of well-heeled buyers who want to piggyback on that charm, a lot of the older homes and buildings are being torn down, and replaced with cookie-cutter townhouses and condos. Where once a three or four story building was considered an eyesore and impedance to lake views, new constructions feature heights that will effectively distance the long-time residents from the nouveau.
Cities have a life of their own, which derives from the cultures they encompass. Consider the square greyness of the uptight and politically choke-held Ottawa, the slightly askew streets and impractical outside staircases of Montreal, or the exuberance of Calgary’s newest buildings, which appear overnight from the ashes of the Cowtown’s foundations.
Toronto, once so proudly W.A.S.P., now teems with diversity. The areas where new immigrants congregate to create ethnic enclaves may not be to your taste, but display individuality in the face of the conformity seemingly endlessly churned out in bland suburbia.
We need more visionaries re-imagining urban Toronto. Duly and safely freshening your beige home exterior is a bore. This year, try pink. Or turquoise. Or emerald green. You never liked your neighbours anyway.