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A cantilevered studio on the property of winery owner Ian MacDonald is a rather literal leap of faith in the Okanagan.
It was near the bottom of a trail traversing a hundred-foot slope to Okanagan Lake that the Ply Architecture team and owner Ian MacDonald first voiced the idea: Why don’t we cantilever the studio over the edge?
“You’re looking up at this almost unattainable horizon because it’s so sheer and steep,” says architect Arnold Chan. “It occurred to us, wouldn’t it be amazing if you were standing just over this precipice…if you’re talking about something that really takes your breath away.”
As it happens, they were.
MacDonald and the Ply Architecture partners, Chan and Casey Burgess, were discussing the next stage of Flying Leap, MacDonald’s name for the dramatic site where he built his home. “Flying Leap is a pretty provocative, activating name for a site,” says Chan, adding, “Ian has a knack for these things in terms of a vision.”
That vision began when MacDonald came from Calgary to B.C.’s Okanagan wine country—specifically the Naramata Bench—to build the Liquidity Wines complex and his similarly “wow” home at Flying Leap (featured in Western Living in 2015). Continuing his master plan, he enlisted Ply Architecture to collaborate on an additional suite of buildings, including garage, workshop and what’s now been dubbed the Flying Leap studio.
MacDonald wanted a self-contained studio space with a kitchen, washroom and bedroom. “Almost like a little cottage house,” says Chan about the compact 480-square-foot creative outpost for MacDonald’s artist friends. “It’s somewhere to be indulgent in the site, in the place, in the moment, and to get inspired,” he adds. “That’s the soul of the space.”
From the initial aha moment beneath the precipice, MacDonald was all in. “I knew it was a yes when, the very next morning, he was already outside on-site with these large PVC pipes, laying out the possibilities,” says Chan. MacDonald became the champion of the project—working with geotechnical engineers, battling authorities, searching all of Western Canada for a specialized drilling system (delivered from the coast via a 90,000-pound vehicle with a 60-foot boom—“In a matter of no time, this thing cored out four holes in the ground like it was butter,” says MacDonald.)
“For any other client I’d think it’d be crazy, but for Ian it seems par for the course,” says builder Nicholas Hill of Ritchie Custom Homes. The silt banks, composed of glacial till, required four 13-metre-deep, 28-inch-diameter concrete piers. “You get these beautiful clay banks and hoodoos,” says Hill of the soft formations along the lakeshore, “but it’s not the most competent material to build a structure hanging out overtop of.” Still, as MacDonald says himself, he was committed to the cantilevering. “If it’s insane, I’ll usually get it done,” MacDonald admits.
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“Ian has an element—capital-e element—of Renaissance about him,” says Chan. “He likes to think in big ways.” And MacDonald pushed like-minded Ply. Having worked in the risk-taking design scene of Hong Kong and with innovative entrepreneurs in hospitality, the two architects embrace the experimental. In this case, the three-year-old firm willingly took a leap, so to speak, following MacDonald’s lead and the vocabulary cues of the main house.
Those cues consist of a basic material palette: cedar, concrete, glass, granite, corrugated metal. “The corrugated is a bit of a reference to that agricultural environment of the Okanagan,” says Burgess, “a modern material used in that farm or industrial context.” Exterior materials extend inside—cedar soffits and concrete flooring—to keep the connection seamless. The rest of the interior palette is also simple: stark-white walls, stainless steel countertops, lacquered millwork, Carrara marble tiles. “The materials are true to their form in being concrete, wood, metal; we’re not masking or mimicking anything,” says Hill.
The minimalist, modern aesthetic (no trims, few details) and stripped-down furniture and fixtures let art, like a large Vaughn Neville abstract, be the focus. “That’s the story of my life,” says MacDonald. “Everything I do has a white background so it can be a neutral background for displaying art.”
This culminates in the bird’s-eye perspective from the bedroom, where “all of a sudden, you’re hovering,” says Burgess. She and Chan were the first to actually stay in the finished studio. “If you’re there to create something or make art, I can’t think of a better place to do it,” she says. Or, as Chan puts it, “If the building were a person, it would be an enabler. It’s not there for you to praise it, it’s there to enable you.”
For MacDonald, it’s genius loci. He’s even stamped the Latin term on his address sign: “A spot that’s imbued with a natural beauty that’s almost surreal…a very, very special spirit,” says MacDonald. “And that’s what I feel about this place. All I’ve been trying to do, with all the different design elements of the property, is to invoke the genius loci that’s already inherent in this piece of land.”
Everyone involved—Hill, Chan, Burgess—gives full props to MacDonald. “Kudos to Ian to have the guts to do it,” says Chan. “It’s one thing to design something; it’s another thing to make it happen.” And when it happens, everything else falls away, quite literally. There’s no “noise,” he says. “All that is distilled when you walk in—wow, I’m here, I’m somewhere.” Somewhere that was once air off a precipice. A leap, now manifest.