Dreaming of a real estate Robin Hood
Dave LeBlanc

“Do you understand the conditions I’ve set forth, Mr. LeBlanc?” said the electronically-disguised voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, although I still don’t know why you’ve chosen me,” I said, still dumbfounded by what I’d just heard.

“You are one of the few architecture writers who ‘get it,’ and we think you’ll deliver our message properly,” said the mysterious voice in closing. “We’ll see you at the appointed place and time – goodbye.”

And so began my experience with ‘Developer X,’ undoubtedly the strangest I’ve had while covering the real estate beat for the Globe and Mail. While I’m forbidden to reveal Developer X’s true identity or even the location of our meeting, I can tell you that Toronto will never be the same if what I’ve heard is true.

If you’re tired of watching McMansion after McMansion replace perfectly good bungalows, or grow like weeds on any and every infill lot while destroying the scale and sanctity of our neighbourhoods in the process, read on.

You might say Developer X is a real estate Robin Hood. Or a superhero. Or both. As it was told to me, the plan is to force Torontonians (especially homebuilding ones) to confront smaller, modest and modernist residential architecture by building first and asking questions later. Don’t follow me? Try this: Right now, at the southeast corner of Dupont Street and Westmoreland Avenue is a rather large vacant lot – last I checked, the hoarding was painted bright blue – but at some point in the very near future it will contain a row of six pointy and glassy townhouses that will be erected virtually overnight.

Don’t ask how Developer X has gotten permission to do this or where the parts are being fabricated, because I don’t know. All I know is that once built, these strikingly beautiful structures will ignite questions that should have been asked long ago, such as: Why is it that no high-volume home builders offer smaller, affordable starter homes in the modern style? Are there no consumers willing to buy them? And why must ‘modern’ equal stark boxes with flat roofs like those in the pages of Dwell magazine? Are there no new ways to rethink the traditional pitched roof?

Developer X thinks there are: “It makes sense in Canada … there are a lot of reasons to have a pitched roof, and when you expose them on the inside they make very beautiful forms. So it’s something we’ve been working on for a number of years. You can get very large spans without using steel and [instead] using conventional wood framing systems.”

In the rendering handed to me, I saw this to be true: Wonderful shapes and spans have been created, and by slicing away portions of the roof to create private decks and light-wells, natural light penetrates deep into these homes. By glazing only the front and rear elevations, Developer X’s homes can be ganged together in groups of two, four, ten or as many as you like.
“Compositionally really interesting volumetric spaces,” says Developer X as I hand the rendering back and watch, amazed, as a match is held to it before being dropped into a metal trash can. “We’ve taken advantage of the roofscape in order to fit in an exterior space that’s entirely enclosed, set away from the street and completely private.”

So simple, yet so modern, it makes me wonder why this hasn’t been done before. And with the traditional roof peak retained, these homes can be inserted into older Toronto neighbourhoods without ruining the streetscape.

There are other top secret sites (that will be revealed soon) where similar homes will be dropped, guerrilla-style. And, if Developer X gets his/her wish, these philanthropic gifts will become the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back as people demand more choice, whether directly from the traditional homebuilders or via their city councillors, the media or on blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

***

Okay, I’ll fess up. While the above scenario is something I’ve wanted for a very long time, most of it is fiction. Yes, the designs are real, but they aren’t coming to a neighbourhood near you under cover of darkness. There is no Developer X.

Developer X is the brainchild of two very imaginative, talented (and married) architects named Merike and Stephen Bauer of Reigo & Bauer. You may remember a very lovely (and very real) home at 12 Cassels Ave. featured in these pages in May 2006.

The architectural Robin Hood story of Developer X is part of a new gallery show at Harbourfront Centre’s York Quay Centre (235 Queens Quay W.) called Neighbourhood Maverick, which opens tonight and runs until June 12, 2011. Of her and her husband’s fictional creation, Ms. Bauer says: “He’s making a pitch to developers to say ‘Give Torontonians a chance to adopt modern.’ Every developer is scared [and thinks] that everybody buys traditional, and Developer X is saying ‘Just look, here’s a modern building, I bet you it’s going to sell.’ ”

And I bet you that when a developer finally does find the courage to go modern, Reigo & Bauer will be the ones getting the surprising phone call.




A light touch: Architectural firm Reigo & Bauer lightens and brightens a Toronto semi.
David Steiner

Merike Reigo and Stephen Bauer, principals of a young architectural practice, were invited by a couple they'd never met, to see a house for sale, 30 minutes before the showing. The couple had heard about Reigo and Bauer's residential projects, hired them on and proceeded to buy the second house they saw: a three-storey semi-detached home in midtown Toronto. Accustomed to condominium living, they wanted to replace the dated 1970s interior with something bright and contemporary. Two weeks after the property closed, construction started.

The house is basically a long shoebox with a 65-foot party wall to the east side and a narrow passageway to the west, allowing in minimal light. As a result, only the front and back are open, leaving the owners desperate to get as much sunlight from the two ends of the house as possible.

Reigo and Bauer focussed on the main living space (situated one level above grade due to a steeply sloping site) and the master bedroom, with smaller work - new trim, paint, doors, windows, fixtures and furniture - throughout the home. Demolition occurred in select locations, preserving the existing structure wherever possible. Curved corners, ubiquitous in the original main level, were removed or straightened. All the washrooms were either rebuilt or updated with new fixtures, and the railings of the three-storey staircase were rebuilt as a continuous low wall that winds its way up the house.

The client required the formal dining room and kitchen to be out of view rather than part of an open-plan space. Clever placement of partial walls and floor-to-ceiling millwork on the main floor keep the various spaces distinct and physically separate while retaining an open feeling. At certain spots you can see across the length of the floor plate, making the house feel spacious without exposing the contents of every room.  

A 3.5-foot-long wall, detached at both ends and wrapped in a pinstriped, silver-flecked wallpaper, stands at the south end of the dining room, creating privacy from the entry hall. A 10-inch slot provides a slivered view to the front door. Between the living room and dining room is a 40-inch-wide piece of millwork that extends up to the ceiling; clad front and back in a black veneer with a heavy wood-grain pattern, it conceals a bar. "It is meant to feel like a freestanding object in space," says Merike Reigo. When open, drinks flow to both the living room and dining room; when closed there is just enough solid surface to make the dining area private while still allowing light to filter around.

Flat white is the principal colour used throughout. "It helps immensely to brighten the space," says Stephen Bauer, who adds that it acts as a counterpoint to the new mahogany windows and the oil-finished, thermally treated ash wood floors. Upper and lower kitchen cabinets are also covered in a white laminate with a matte finish so flat they appear to be made of paper. The arctic palette continues up the wall of the staircase and along the hallways, extending into the rooms of the second floor.

Asked to select much of the home's furnishings, Reigo and Bauer chose items that are luscious without being flashy. With a deliberate bit of drama they contrasted contemporary surfaces with classic home wear: in the master bedroom a Boss Bed from Palazzetti, with its dark leather tufted headboard, sits in front of a wall covered in a damask-patterned wallpaper that seems to give off a gentle pulse. Snaking around two walls of the room are 22 linear feet of custom-built floor-to-ceiling millwork, in flat white, holding a TV and hiding an abundance of clothing. A Smoked Chair, by Maarten Baas (fabrication includes burning the frame to increase its texture), rests off in the corner.

Just enough of the existing house was sliced away to increase its feeling of spaciousness while retaining the original character. Many bold patterned surfaces, new bits of wall, elegant millwork and furniture - all expertly crafted - add up to a brash, bright interior that is at once clever and fun without compromising a drop of the home's intended function.









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