Taylor Smyth Architects overhauls an existing house to accommodate a vast collection that includes photography by Jeff Wall and an installation by General Idea.
A wood-panelled tudor house on a quiet residential street is hardly an ideal environment for viewing large-scale works of art. There are too many dark rooms, too few long views. For a Toronto couple who are passionate about art that doesn’t fit neatly on walls or above mantelpieces, the architecture of their house, built by Henry Fleiss in 1969, posed various limitations in displaying some of their favourite pieces. These include a sculptural installation by Christian Boltanski, with long ropes of electrical wire hanging down; and video art by Bill Viola, which runs on two monitors.
Michael Taylor, of local firm Taylor Smyth Architects, found an approach that effectively rejuvenates the two-storey house and puts the focus on the artworks while keeping it as a very livable family dwelling. As a result, art is everywhere. The original dining room is devoid of table and chairs, to make room for a rotating display of large installations, currently a sculpture by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. The boxy piece sits at the centre of the room, with giant hand-knit and crocheted balls that extend outward like entrails.
The centre hallway underwent the largest transformation, says Taylor; a heavy oak staircase and dark wood panelling dominated, and restricted the art to a smattering of smaller works. Now stripped away, the entrance doubles as a bright, white-walled exhibition space, which radically alters the feel of the house.
“This is the first project in my career where individual artworks figured so prominently in my CAD drawings,” says Taylor, who configured feature walls to match the dimensions of two large pieces in particular: a Jeff Wall photograph of a backyard summer scene that spans three metres, and a 3‑D installation by Canadian collective General Idea. Part of the floor space of the upstairs study was sacrificed to create the double-height clearance required for that statement-making work, which rises up the wall four metres and reads as an oversized bubble pack of prescription capsules. Taylor maximized the flow of natural light with reflective white oak flooring, large door openings, and glass railings that allow for unobstructed sightlines between floors.
To further illuminate the collection, Taylor hired lighting consultant Suzanne Powadiuk, who has lit the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto and the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. She installed museum-grade fixtures by LSI throughout, with UV-blocking filters, beam softeners, and rotating spread lenses, which can be aimed vertically and horizontally. “In a gallery, the art is lit first,” says Powadiuk, “but in a residential setting, appropriate light levels are based on the function of the space. As a result, residential art is often lit to a higher level to provide sufficient contrast.”
Every inch was considered in making way for the collection; mouldings were removed and walls extended. The double-height wall adjacent to the open-rung staircase now holds many statement-making works, including the Holocaust memory piece by Christian Boltanski with the hanging loops of electrical wire, and a large text-based painting by Graham Gillmore of Winlaw, British Columbia.
The client’s all-black bathroom is itself like a work of art. “It was a challenge to find the right finishes – a black tub, black faucets, controls and tiles – that would give a dark, sophisticated look without feeling monotonous,” says Taylor. “The skylight is the moon, and the pin lights are the indoor stars that prevent the look from being oppressive.”
Lightness permeates the entire design. “We opened up and unified the ground floor,” says Taylor, making it more gallery-like while improving sightlines and flow. “At some point, the spaces tell us exactly what they need to be.”