Instead of building an addition, Lebel & Bouliane hacked this Russell Hill home’s existing space, turning an attic into sky-high ceilings
Before starting on a recent commission in Toronto’s Russell Hill neighbourhood, Luc Bouliane surveyed his clients’ art collection, which includes original pieces by Norval Morrisseau and Annie Pootoogook. Many were languishing in storage, so the architect, a founding partner of boutique design firm Lebel & Bouliane, set about giving them a home.
His clients, a professional couple with two university-aged children and a Wheaten terrier, had recently acquired a 27-metre-long semi with buggy rooms, low ceilings and a massive unfinished attic. Bouliane didn’t change the exterior structure; he merely opened up the interiors. “Instead of doing an addition,” he says, “we asked, How can we better use the existing space?”
With the walls down, the front entrance now opens onto a 16-by-5-metre kitchen-lounge beneath the original attic ceiling. Instead of a second floor, there’s a narrow mezzanine supported by steel I-beams. The open concept main space, with its pitched ceiling and exposed joists, has taken on a lofty, barn-like ambience.
The interior program adheres to classic gallery conventions, in which design never competes with art for attention. The walls are a neutral white. The material palette – oak floors, grey marble on the fireplace and in the bathrooms – is subtle and suitably rustic, given the Woodlands style of the art collection. The glass guards on the mezzanine are embedded in the floor, eliminating the need for obtrusive metal armature. And, thanks to more than 100 carefully placed LED fixtures, the lighting is evenly distributed throughout the home.
The finishes may be subtle, but the place hardly resembles your traditional “white cube” art space. Bouliane uses irregular shapes to create a sense of drama and momentum. Upstairs, running along the wall, is a custom desk and bookcase, which bulges and narrows like a river. Both the quartz kitchen island and the overlooking mezzanine run at oblique, west-ward angles, bending the room toward the master suite at the back, where an expansive window looks out onto lush foliage.
To house the clients’ sculpture collection – a menagerie of northern animals in soapstone – Bouliane set several recesses in the walls. In one such nook are two bears: one diving, and the other morphing, magically, into a seal. Together, they tell a story of transformation, making them fitting symbols for their new home.