An embedded home hugs its hillside

People have been transforming the rolling landscape of Ontario’s Grey County for more than 150 years. They have mined and logged it, cleared and farmed it, and, more recently, turned it into a much-frequented rural retreat from life in Toronto, dotted with weekend houses.

The architectural results are uneven. As anyone driving around the district can see, builders have occasionally just dropped city homes into the midst of the rural scenery. The more thoughtful designers, however, have engaged in dialogues with the place’s geology and cultural history, and developed solutions that fit, rather than fight (or ignore), the complex beauty of what’s there.

Toronto architect Ian MacDonald has tackled the more exacting task and carried it through to an interesting and expressive conclusion in his house known as Grey Highlands.

Designed as a second residence for a Toronto couple with five children, the 2,950-square-foot building stands on the site of a former farm laid out high up the sloping side of a valley. The visitor coming there drives up a steep dead-end road, then parks on a small pad just off the road.

Surveyed from the vantage point of the pad, the flat-roofed house lies low and broad below, partly embedded into the hillside. In plan, its two limbs describe an L shape. The larger wing contains the more public areas, while the other wing, enclosing the bedrooms, thrusts out toward the distant, opposite side of the valley. This out-bound visual pulse is sharply checked by an old barn that Mr. MacDonald preserved and renovated.

I’ll come back to this barn in a moment, but first a few more remarks on the new construction.

Descending from the parking pad along a switch-back flight of stone steps sunk into the hillside, the visitor passes handsome walls of granite boulders and hewn blocks dry-laid by Toronto stonemason Gus Butterfield. The well-defined entrance opens, not into the high-ceilinged, open-plan living and dining room and kitchen complex – that comes a little later, down a narrow hallway – but on a bridge overlooking a large secluded room.

No tall windows open this room to the views round about. Neither as private as a bedroom, nor as public as a living room, it speaks of a kind of intermediate refuge. Perhaps inevitably, this space has been put to work as a playroom for the kids. But its sense of apartness suggests that someday it might be used for some peaceful adult activity – reading, perhaps, or listening to music.

The living and dining areas are floored with concrete and ruddy jotoba, and unpainted Douglas fir rafters span the entire length of the main wing. The wooden elements below and above, and the mahogany millwork, lend warmth to the otherwise resolutely modernist, white-and-black interior. This zone is as open as the secluded room is shut – and so it goes throughout Mr. MacDonald’s rhythmic, flexing design, with openings and closings, and alternations between tight framings and broad spatial releases.

I had my most vivid experience of Grey Highlands’ liveliness one afternoon while looking out the entirely glazed west wall of the living-dining area. The nearest foreground was a small, flat oblong of lawn, bounded on three sides, first, by the main volume of the house, then by the long bedroom wing, and finally by the barn.

But instead of fully shutting in its side of the lawn, the restored barn stepped sideways to allow the eye to pass directly from the lawn to the green valley wall rising in the background. The middle distance, in other words, was eliminated.

Devoid of this middle ground – the sociable space, in both architecture and traditional landscape painting, where people meet and mingle and trade – the carefully framed prospect out the window is composed of two distinctly separated spaces: one very near, domestic and familiar, the other distant, dreamlike. But the difference is not as abrupt as I’m perhaps making it sound. Both spaces bear the traces of habitation, and both are results of hard work applied to the land.

The old barn and new house recall this tradition of labour, and so does the pattern of cultivated fields on the opposite hillside. The modern world of the middle distance – represented, for instance, by an arterial road on the valley floor – has become invisible. Grey Highlands, then, is not only sunk physically deep into this landscape, it also constructs a view that reminds us of the human forces that have changed this district of Ontario, over several generations, from wilderness into the variegated place it is today.

Mr. MacDonald’s house succeeds admirably as an expert formal play of volumes and voids. But its more enduring importance to the building art consists in the mindful way the architect has shaped his work to create a notable, interesting view.

The Globe and Mail