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A home for three families in East Vancouver from architect Marianne Amodio could just be a new prototype for communal living.
Photos by Janis Nicolay
The first thing architect Marianne Amodio of MA+HG Architects noticed on meeting her prospective clients at their East Vancouver home was a drawing of Le Corbusier's Ronchamp chapel that the husband had done in architecture school. When I saw that I said, okay, I'm embarking on something really interesting here, says Amodio.
The semi-retired couple had lived on the property in a small, nondescript house for nearly 30 years. When they were ready to tear the old building down and build their dream house, they envisioned a space that could accommodate both them and their three grown children and their partners. It was to be a new typology of the Vancouver Specialthe boxy, '70s-era residential style that proliferated through much of the neighbourhoodone that embraced the style's functionality while eschewing its much-maligned form.
The resulting home has hints of Le Corbusier's innovative church, with its seemingly sporadic asymmetric windows, thick whitewashed walls and stark sculptural quality. But it's the homeowners and Amodio's own iconoclastic interpretation of a highly refined dormitory of sortsa multi-adult dwelling, or a MAD House, as the homeowners dubbed it from the start.
The big question was how do we get this many people into this footprint, says Amodio of the 33-foot city lot. Her answer: a functionalist approach that embraces the dormitory spirit the homeowners were after. Priority in the 2,700-square-foot split-level house is given to a large communal living spacekitchen, dining and living rooms combined. The four bedrooms then become private refuges, set on slightly different levels for separation.
A central staircase feeds light from top to bottom, and flow is unimpeded between private and public areas that are connected by various nooks and two roof decks.
Within all of that functional space, there's some serious play with volume. Doors extend to the full eight-foot ceiling height in the private areas. In the public space, a low, tunnel-like passageway acts as a transition zone between the front entry and the expansive, 12-foot-ceilinged common area, muffling and cocooning sound and light in contrast to the loftiness and brightness it leads to.
That contrast, whether juxtaposing big and small or light and dark, is part of the home's daring. Sometimes it's hard to be bold. It's scary, says Amodio. But when she suggested putting a window at floor level (It's about setting the eye to a different place), the homeowners went with it. They were really open to being weird. They loved the eccentricities of some of the things that I proposed, and they encouraged it.
In fact, those windows are archetypal of the design: playfulness pairs with functionality throughout the house. Those groupings of windows seem haphazard yet are purposeful, much like in Le Corbusier's Ronchamp. One window stretches almost 12 feet to bring light deep inside and accentuate volume, while another small, 14-by-14-inch window offers peek-a-boo views to anyone seated on the sofa. Deep-set, non-operable windows punctuate the thick-walled facade, while side windows open for cross-ventilation. One window in the homeowners bedroom is at the wife's eye level, another at the husband's.
But the biggest creative push and pull is with colourfrom deep teal in the entry tunnel to kelly green on the soffit of the deck. A pink window glows even brighter next to that green. The kitchen faucet is cobalt blue. And the front door is vivid yellow. It's a stamp of Amodio's fearlessness with colour: I devised a theory during the course of this project that no colours clash, she explains, and I wanted to test it in a couple of areas.
The fireplace surround is a testament to that exploration. When she grasped the homeowners love of the Moorish influence on Spanish architecture, Amodio asked them to choose a range of handcrafted, multi-hued and -patterned tiles that she then puzzled together in a loose yet deliberate arrangement (after testing some 24 variations). The result is a striking floor-to-ceiling piece of art that's like an homage to colour and contrast.
I was able to tap into a part of myself where it was almost intuitive design, says Amodio. And yet, while Amodio advocates throwing caution to the wind, everything in her design has intent. There were really carefully curated moments of a little bit of crazinessof wild creativitybut we were really specific about where they could go and why. It's a mix of workhorse and whimsy, or functionalist quirk, as Amodio describes the aesthetic of the MAD House. It's weird, it's a little eccentric, it's the oddity on the block, but we did it proudly, she says. Part Ronchamp and part Vancouver Special, this MAD House makes perfect sense.
Originally published October 2014
The house is home to eight adults, so the main living areas are voluminous, making communal living easier. The most striking feature is the hand-tiled fireplace, which architect Marianne Amodio designed herself. There's a big family in therethere's a cacophony, there's madness and it's vibrant and alive, says Amodio. I wanted the building to be able to accommodate thatI didnt want it to be precious. Instead, wow is found in Amodio's use of colour and texture: the spot of yellow from the front door; the screen over the stairs; even the multi-coloured terrazzo chips seeded into the solid concrete floors.