Blending Beauty and Efficiency
John Bentley Mays

For house-owning couples whose children have flown the nest, apartment living can look pretty attractive. But such people shouldn't imagine their only option is a nook up in one of Toronto's new, glassy high-rises. Gracious old mid-rise apartment buildings dot the urban landscape, many of them offering spacious suites, and refined amenities that our newer towers can't touch.

But there's something you should know about the apartment you are going to buy in one of Toronto's elderly buildings. The lady who lived there for 50 years liked vivid floral wallpaper, parquet flooring, and yellow ceramic tile in the bathroom. She didn't mind the dark, dead-end corridor at the middle of the apartment, and she made do with the cramped galley kitchen. Renovation, and perhaps more radical surgery, is badly needed before you can take up residence.

That's where architects come in. But because all designers are not created equal, you'll need to pick a firm with strong talent for designing well in a relatively small space. You'll require much attentiveness to your requirements and tastes " and a willingness, not universal among architects, to stay within the budget.

If the delightfully overhauled, intelligently modernized apartment I saw last week at the old Kensington, in Rosedale, is anything to go on, the emerging Toronto architectural office of Reigo & Bauer may be just the ticket.

Working closely with the new owners, a couple with keen professional interest in education, designers Merike Reigo and Stephen Bauer first stripped the 1,300-square-foot suite back to its concrete bones. That was the messy part of the job.

Then came the more interesting part: configuring the space to meet the couple's needs. He loves music and does some work from home, so a place that doubled as listening room and office was called for. She wanted a studio for her crafts projects; a large, well-appointed kitchen and dining area for the entertaining the couple likes to do; and "hardest of all to find in a Toronto apartment" a bathroom with a view of nature from the tub. They also wanted a home that was spare without being stingy, rich in colour without being visually noisy " and they wanted all this for less than $300,000.

The $270,000 structural renovation by Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer embodies the architectural minimalism they have employed to excellent effect in their house projects. But, this time around, the designers have attained an attractively relaxed modernism that is new in their practice. Materials, not fancy paint jobs, provide the subdued but moving colour scheme: hardwood floors baked in kilns to a smoky darkness, mahogany facings on the extensive millwork, high-gloss lacquer contrasting with matte cream walls, cheerful red laminate touches here and there. (This subtle chromaticism is carried through in the choice of modern upholstery and furnishings, which Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer also supervised.)

The best aspect of this radical makeover, however, is the spatial flow the designers have created: a sensuous, poetic sequencing of rooms and intervals that is complex without becoming maze-like. In defiance of the open-plan concept cherished by old-school modernist architects, Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer clearly articulate the various places in the suite according to use, and provide definite transitions. The visitor enters a comfortable foyer "unusual in a Toronto apartment" which then opens toward the living, dining and kitchen areas, each confidently defined by a structural element (the kitchen by a long island counter topped by dramatically veined marble, the dining area by a white millwork divider, and so on).

The passageway that gives access to the interior rooms, however, is the small masterpiece at the heart of this project. Within its short length, this corridor offers a surprisingly abundant series of visual episodes: daylight filtering through a high clerestory; entry into a handsome guest washroom lined with gleaming dark tiles; a twist in the path made necessary by a glass wall softened by sheer drapes; then, around this corner, on to the master bedroom (designed to accommodate exactly a much-loved old rug) and the light-filled studio of the lady.

She got her view from the tub, by the way. Relaxing in her bath, she looks through the clear glass wall separating bathroom from studio "drapes can be drawn when more privacy is required" through the windows of the studio, into the treetops and ever-changing Toronto skies. In the bathroom, and throughout this small project, Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer have provided a setting for apartment living as it should be lived: efficiently, but also beautifully.

all images and text within this page copyright 2011 by reigo & bauer.