Category Archives: interior design

A Home, A Stage for Telling Tales

The latest issue of Wallpaper* looks at prime lumber retreats across three continents. I got to write about a suburban retreat in Canada’s Atlantic province of New Brunswick. The December 2017 article is copied here. (Photos by Julian Parkinson)

Nestled in a wooded lot, this new home by Acre Architects brings a contemporary edge to the suburbs of Saint John, New Brunswick. The conservative maritime setting has few contemporary design precedents, allowing the locally-based firm the freedom to explore new directions. Driven to design structures that ‘inspire people to live great stories’, partners Monica Adair and Stephen Kopp worked with the homeowners, a young, growing, musically inclined family of five who most value social interaction and connecting with the outdoors, to create a house that would best reflect their personality and lifestyle.

The house is clad in silvery cedar shingles that recall the local vernacular, but with a distinct cubic form and tapered roof that set it apart from the town’s Victorian context. It is linked by a wood trellis to a garage, whose discreet rooftop terrace provides 360˚views of the treeline. Floor-to-ceiling glazing along the building’s southern elevation extends the open living/dining/kitchen area to the outdoors. Sight lines in, out and throughout the home allow parents and children to stay connected.

A raised area, which can be used as a stage for impromptu performances, is capped by a dramatic lightwell rising the full height of the house. Spaces expand and contract as occupants move across the 11ft-high living areas and then up into the private quarters. Tucked behind a wall, the stairwell’s slow gradient transitions from dark oak floors up to white maple. Sunlight cascades through the well, bouncing across the white surfaces, changing by day and by season.

The material palette is restrained. Local artisans have been commissioned to create pieces such as the steel handrail and glazed clay kitchen tiles, but there are also playful, unexpected notes, such as a concealed door revealing Superman-blue painted stairs leading down to the playroom.

Acre Architects featured in Wallpaper’s* Architects’ Directory 2016. Its growing portfolio of awards confirms that small projects can have great impact. This space takes on the family’s identity: playful and social while acknowledging local rootedness and tradition. The unconventional, unconstrained floor plan choreographs the life the family wants to live. Of its ‘storied architecture’, ‘the house finds a way not to blend in, but to pay homage to what is there and move forward, to think about the future of architecture for families,’ says Adair.

Photos by Julian Parkinson.
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Moriyama & Teshima Architects imagine and re-imagine the Toronto Reference Library

This is an article I wrote for Canadian Architect magazine.

Toronto Reference Library, circa 1977. Photo by M&T Architects.

Toronto Reference Library, circa 1977. Photo by M&T Architects.

The Toronto Reference Library (TRL) is the flagship of the world’s busiest urban library system. Occupying over 416,000 square feet, it is a landmark situated adjacent to one of the city’s liveliest intersections—Yonge and Bloor—at the junction of two subway lines. The TRL opened its doors in 1977. Designed by architect Raymond Moriyama, the robust five-storey building was clad in red brick, its mass scaled back by terracing the façade along the diagonal. Bands of mirrored glass suggested an inner world within. The narrow corner entrance, flanked on two sides by a colonnade, drew patrons into the building’s soaring interior. With escalating demands on the library system, the TRL recently completed an extensive five-year phased revitalization led by Moriyama & Teshima Architects, though its cofounder Raymond has since retired.

The renewal of the TRL presented an opportunity to create a library of the future for Torontonians: a technologically advanced public space to meet a growing need for innovation, research and collaboration. Outreach strategies include an expanding range of programming. Here, you can take a workshop, get a flu shot, publish a book, or make a 3D-printed model.

“The key,” says Raymond’s son Ajon Moriyama, who was partner in charge of the revitalization (he has since left the firm), “was creating as much flexibility—physically, operationally and socially—in the space as possible.”

A view of the extensive renovations made to the Toronto Reference Library by Moriyama & Teshima Architects.

A view of the extensive renovations made to the Toronto Reference Library by Moriyama & Teshima Architects.

The building buzzes from top to bottom. It is centred on a vast tiered atrium inspired by the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The interiors are bright, airy and uncluttered. Over the last five years, a series of interventions were thoughtfully integrated: a refurbished gallery, a freestanding theatre, a cultural and literary salon seating 600, enhanced spaces for quiet individual study and group work. A double-height rotunda dedicated to special collections reinterprets the romantic feel of old libraries with a distinctly modern material palette of concrete, titanium and dark wood. Each venue provides opportunities for people to meet, interact and exchange ideas.

Special Collections. Image courtesy of the Toronto Reference Library.

Special Collections. Image courtesy of the Toronto Reference Library.

While the TRL’s role as a social gathering place grows, the written word still lies at its core, both in physical and digital form. Over four million items reside on site—novels, periodicals, films and maps. The building employs concealed mezzanines to maximize overall storage capability, amplified through the use of space-saving compact shelves. Open-plan layouts were rezoned for easier self-navigation; stacks were reconfigured to facilitate research. The library continues to explore and adopt emerging technological tools to better monitor collections and support learning and discovery.

Beyond the rows of books and computers are labs and maker spaces—means by which the TRL helps drive digital literacy through experiential learning. Access to laser cutters and audio mixers turns patrons from content consumers into creators.

Toronto Reference Library

Toronto Reference Library, circa 2014.

Toronto Reference Library - Rendering from original proposal. Image courtesy of Unbuilt Toronto 2.

Toronto Reference Library – Rendering from original proposal. Image courtesy of Unbuilt Toronto 2.

The library’s re-envisioned design recalls Raymond Moriyama’s visionary initial design concept of a glass box, which the City dropped in favour of a brick-clad volume. The revitalization provides a more open and transparent interface with the street: a reading lounge invites glimpses in, a bustling café entices passersby. The formerly dark, deep entrance now takes the dynamic form of a rotated glass cube. At night, it appears as a glowing beacon. The building reclaims its corner site, its evolving mix of paper and pixels drawing from—and contributing to—the downtown milieu.

Stephanie Calvet is a Toronto-based architect and writer.

Faux Sunlight

Interior space illuminated by high tech LED skylight from Coelux

CoeLux uses LEDs and nano-materials to create a startling facsimile of sunlight.

Here is a technologically innovative light fixture that simulates the look of sunlight through a skylight. It is made from a material that mimics the light scattering achieved through the Earth’s atmosphere. CoeLux wants to change our experience in spaces cut off from the outside. Different models recreate the warm, grazing light of Northern Europe or the dramatic light of the Tropics. It is currently being used in ‘iceberg homes’ —mega basements for the wealthy in London. But imagine it being used in hospitals, gyms, offices, and carparks. It could have some real impact when the price comes down…

Below is the full article from the blog PetaPixel. Photos by Michael Loos.

Interior space illuminated by high tech LED skylight from Coelux

Accurately mimicking sunlight isn’t just a matter of creating a perfect simulation of the sunlight’s wavelength, but recreating a process called Rayleigh scattering where that light is subtly distorted by atmospheric particles.

There’s an innovative new light technology that’s trying to shake up the way people think about “artificial light.” In Italian company called CoeLux has developed a new light source that recreates the look of sunlight through a skylight so well that it can trick both human brains and cameras.

It’s a high tech LED skylight that’s designed to provide “sunlight” for interior spaces cut off from the outdoors. One of the main ideas behind it is that to create realistic sunlight, you can’t just simulate the sun… you need to recreate the atmosphere as well.

CoeLux turns a basement washroom into a passable alternative to a Mediterranean spa.

A basement washroom transformed into a passable alternative to a Mediterranean spa.

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Interior space illuminated by high tech LED skylight from Coelux

The scientists who invented the light figured out how to use a thin coating of nanoparticles to accurately simulate sunlight through Earth’s atmosphere and the effect known as Rayleigh scattering. It’s not just the color temperature that is the same — the quality of the light feels the same as well.

People who have had a chance to experience the skylight so far have been fooled into believing that there was an actual hole in the ceiling, and the sample photos on the CoeLux website come with a cautionary note: “The photographs on this site are real and unretouched. They are not computer renderings.”

The technology is designed for providing the appearance of sunlight to spaces that could use it (e.g. hospitals, gyms, offices, underground parking structures), but it seems photographers could also make use of it as well for an artificial sunlight source in a studio — especially people who work in places with unpredictable or limited sunlight. However, the price would need to come down first: CoeLux currently costs £40,000 (~$61,000) to buy and up to £5,000 (~$7,600) for installation.

CoeLux says future improvements will include the ability to change the position of the sun in the frame and dynamic color temperature of the sunlight.

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The innovation behind CoeLux is a custom nano material that recreates the effects of 6,200 miles of atmosphere into a sheet of plastic just a few millimeters thick.

Wired magazine also has an article on this: A Nanotech Skylight That Looks Just Like The Sun Shining Overhead.

Big-box buyers become bookworms

Here is an idea that has been mooted post- Target Canada debacle. And it comes, indirectly, from its discount store rival Walmart, no less. After Walmart abandoned one of its retail stores in McAllen, Texas, the city decided to reuse the structure as a new main library. Reinvention in the face of adversity is a common theme these days.

McAllen, Texas' new main library is located in a converted Walmart store. Photo by MSR.

McAllen, Texas’ new library is located in a converted Walmart. Photo: MSR Design

Target Canada recently announced that it is packing up shop less than two years after opening 133 stores across the country. Some blame its failure in the Canadian market on anti-competitive pricing while others attribute it to a limited product selection (I’ve also heard “it didn’t understand the complexity of the Canadian consumer”). It will be interesting to know what’s in store for the slew of these newly vacant big-boxes in the ‘burbs. In the meantime, ears are perked for ‘liquidation sales!’ Let’s hope incoming Uniqlo fares better…

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Your typical Target Canada superstore. Photo: Geoff Robins/Reuters

South of the snowline, architecture firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR) has created a highly functional, flexible library of 125,000 square feet, making it the largest single-storey library in the U.S.A. To give that some context, it is an area equivalent to nearly 2 1/2 football fields.

To start, the former Walmart store’s ceilings were stripped and the interior and new mechanical systems were painted white to form a neutral backdrop for new patron and service areas, which are designated with colour and texture.

BEFORE. Photo: MSR Design

Within the sprawling volume, the designers created more intimate spaces introducing form, pattern, and light. All aspects –from the interior architecture, to the graphics, to the furnishings– work in harmony and relate to one another.

The library creates a much-needed intellectual and social hub that arguably brings more to the community than another superstore can. The new venue boasts 16 public meeting spaces, 14 public study rooms, 64 computer labs, 10 children’s computer labs, and 2 genealogy computer labs. Other features include an auditorium, an art gallery, a used bookstore and a café. There is even a Farmer’s Market on the weekends.

Here is what the designers came up with:

Laser-cut wood ceiling plane runs the length of the building. Photo courtesy of MSR.

Laser-cut wood ceiling plane runs the length of the building. Photo: MSR Design

Super-graphic-clad ceiling pendants and lighting and flooring choices define spaces. Photo courtesy of MSR.

Super-graphic-clad ceiling pendants, lighting and flooring choices define spaces. Photo: MSR Design

For easy wayfinding and to encourage self-servicing, service desks and collection areas are designated with colourful, textural landmarks. Photo: MSR Design

Inspired by the Fibonacci Series, the layout and patterns found in the childrens area mimic growth patterns in kids. Photo by MSR.

Inspired by the Fibonacci Series, the layout and patterns found in the children’s area mimic growth patterns in kids. Photo: MSR Design

The teen hang-out area is acoustically separated from the rest of the library. Photo: MSR Design

FLOOR PLAN: bisecting axes define program areas. Image courtesy of MSR.

FLOOR PLAN: bisecting axes define program areas. Image: MSR Design

There is a lot of talk these days of how libraries, large and small, are evolving in the face of the digital revolution, which is radically changing how we access and consume information. As we see in McAllen, libraries are prioritizing community engagement and facilitating new learning models. But that’s a broader topic for another day.

To find out more about this project, click here.

Turning a forgotten penthouse into office space

A version of this post appeared in the June edition of  Canadian Facilities Management & Design. 

Park Property Management renovation by Quadrangle Architects. Photo by Bob Gundu

Park Property Management renovation by Quadrangle Architects. Photo by Bob Gundu.

When rental company Park Property Management (PPM) required an additional office, it searched its apartment inventory. It unearthed 2,000 square feet perched atop a north Toronto building, 15 storeys up. Long forgotten, the penthouse had been relegated to a storage depot, stashed with cleaning supplies, gym equipment and the superintendent’s found treasures. PPM called on Quadrangle Architects’ Interiors Group to see if there was any hope for its rehabilitation and conversion to a workplace.

When the designers walked into the space, they immediately saw potential. With its concrete folded plate roof, open span, and enveloping daylight, it was evident that it had good bones. Unfortunately, it served as little more than a glorified broom closet. “This is wonderful!” stated principal and interiors group lead, Caroline Robbie. “How could (one) have been sitting on this for so long and not done anything with it?”

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Herman Miller Workstations. Photo by Bob Gundu.

Having outgrown its current digs, PPM needed to manage some 12 buildings from this location. The program was simple: two private offices, workstations for a small number of staff, file storage, a meeting area, a kitchen, and a space to greet visitors. PPM also wanted the flexibility to grow.

Completed in November 2013, the project didn’t involve a great deal of building; the space was mostly in desperate need of a clearing out and freshening up. Original inherited features including the terrazzo floor and radiators were retained, and the exposed concrete folded plate ceiling was stripped of random adhesive tiles and clad in drywall. Small storerooms were demolished and an updated HVAC system was installed. The biggest ticket item was the perimeter’s total window replacement, which in turn had a positive effect on light quality and energy efficiency.

The design direction for the interiors was borne of the building’s early 60s vintage and the space’s strong architectural language: align the interior design with the architecture by emphasizing its mid-century modern heritage. Walnut veneer is used in the millwork, extending to the furniture and accessory pieces, while accent details are co-ordinated in black or satin bronze finish, right down to the tiny tapered cabinet pulls.

The new Mad Men-inspired office blends commercial and residential; PPM, after all, is in the business of where people live. Just as building superintendents and managers come to the office to discuss operations, tenants come to sign leases or negotiate sublets. “We wanted to give it a warm, residential feel, but without seeming false, folksy or artificial,” Robbie said.

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Entry vestibule at Park Property Management. Photo by Bob Gundu.

Visitors step off the elevator into an intimate vestibule, only seven feet in height. A wiry carpet recalls an entrance mat and the painted black walls are adorned with an overlay of repeating company logos in gold leaf, simulating custom wallpaper. Period-correct wall sconces complement the residential aesthetic.

From there, the low ceiling gives way to reveal a light-filled and lofty open plan space peaking at 12 feet. Simple white lighting fixtures hang overhead. Underfoot, carpet tiles are grouped to resemble area rugs, picking up green, grey and brown tones of the terrazzo flooring.

The waiting area, more akin to a living room, is distinguished by a carefully curated collection of signature Eames pieces: lounge chair, coffee table and compact sofa. This classic design furniture by Herman Miller is mixed with a row of crisp white contemporary workstation systems tucked under the profiled ceiling, channeling a retro feel. “It resonates with a certain generation of people but it still looks modern. To me, modernism still looks fresh — it doesn’t look dated,” Robbie said.

Park Property Management_interior. Photo by Bob Gundu

Meeting area at Park Property Management. Photo by Bob Gundu.

Two private corner offices follow. The remaining open area has a meeting space with bright orange Eames shell chairs and banks of files. The area can easily be added to or reconfigured. A kitchen and powder room complete PPM’s new office.

File storage was a priority. Going paperless is a growing trend, with many workplaces now managing information electronically. But the rental industry, with its paper-based origins, is in a transitional phase. Leases are still penned and copies must remain on site as long as leases are active, amounting to loads of paper records. With that in mind, designers stacked some filing cabinets three high and turned them into work surfaces. They also arranged some filing cabinets singly, so the cabinets can double as upholstered benches. Kept low, they don’t create a wall, visually or practically. “We tried to do it in a way that the stuff didn’t get in the way of the people,” Robbie said.

Park Property Management renovation by Quadrangle Architects. Photo by Bob Gundu

Tiny kitchen with tall walnut veneer cabinetry, intermingled glossy and matte tile backsplash, and a brass faucet. Photo by Bob Gundu.

And where they could refurbish, they did, often with a sense of whimsy. A 60s Sputnik chandelier was re-appropriated from another property, and a glitzy pinball machine reinvented by one of the company’s owners was placed upright as artwork.

The renewed interior not only makes more efficient use of the real estate, but it offers a highly functional and comfortable workplace where one had not been envisioned.

“A building’s lifespan has to grow and change over time,” Robbie said. “As a designer, you’re seeing its attributes and its potential where someone else might not.”

Stephanie Calvet is a Toronto-based registered architect and a writer specializing in architecture and design. She has 11 years’ experience working in architecture and planning firms in Boston, designing projects in the hospitality, multi-unit residential, education and healthcare sectors.