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“Perhaps no one thing distinguishes twentieth-century architecture more than the central role played by the private house,” wrote architecture historian Beatriz Colomina in the mid-90s. “Every aspect of architecture, even the city itself, has been rethought in this century from the house.” Though she was musing on the radical changes to domestic space that began in the early 1900s, her sentiment rings true — maybe even more so — this year.

In the last 10 months, we’ve witnessed our homes take on new meaning (and new dimensions) following global lockdowns that compressed the spheres of life and work, public and private between its studs. Fitting for a year in which many landmark moments played out within our domiciles, we’ve gathered the most unique projects from Toronto to Kuala Lumpur that expertly explore the potential of this typology: 

Stairway House, Tokyo, by Nendo
PHOTO: Daici Ano

A multi-generational family house with a sculptural concrete staircase that extends all the way out the door. This daring design is by none other than Nendo, the Tokyo studio led by Japanese-Canadian design virtuoso Oki Sato. As we wrote back in January, a set of grandparents live on the first floor — which also allows their eight cats to roam in and out freely — while the younger couple and their small child reside on the second and third floors. Furnished sleekly — a stunning black kitchen, a minimal window-facing workspace — the home makes practical use of its marvel of a staircase. It encloses functional elements such as bathrooms and passageways from one side of the house to the opposite. And it joins the fabric of the neighbourhood by extending southward on the ground level and upwards through its skylight. Filled with plants, it also creates a diagonal garden and a sun-soaked perch that all three generations can enjoy.

Hinterhouse, Quebec, by Ménard Dworkind
PHOTO: David Dworkind

Surrounded by trees and not much else, Hinterhouse in Quebec’s Mont-Tremblant region takes isolation to a new — and undeniably pleasurable — level. Designed by architect David Dworkind of Montreal studio Ménard Dworkind, the 86.3-square-metre cabin is a study in minimalism warmed up by a palette of nature-inspired materials. The flat-roofed single-storey structure is clad in sustainably forested white cedar vertical slat siding with some segments forming shutter-like panels that can be moved sideways to alternately close-off the cabin completely or to reveal floor-to-ceilings windows. It’s a considered touch that gives the inhabitants the ability to manipulate privacy and light levels (the shutters also reduce solar heat gain).

PHOTO: David Dworkind

The interior is equally well-appointed, with poured (and heated) concrete slab flooring and oiled red pine-plank walls and ceilings creating a cosy envelope free from any distracting embellishments. A wood-burning stove provides warmth and anchors the main space, around which the open-plan living and kitchen area, two bedrooms and one bathroom radiate. Mere steps away from the main cabin is a second similar but smaller structure — a four-person sauna with outdoor shower and hanging hammocks. Originally conceived as a private getaway, the cabin is now part of a new hotel concept, meaning this isolated retreat can be enjoyed by anyone looking to decompress and connect with nature.

Prism House and Terraced Room, Conguillío, by Smiljan Radić
PHOTO: Cristóbal Palma

Chilean architect Smiljan Radić is known for his tour-de-force buildings, from the fibreglass egg he fashioned for the 2014 Serpentine Pavilion to the boulder-supported restaurant, Mestizo, he designed in Santiago. Also situated in Chile, near the Conguillío National Park, the Casa Prisma expands on Radic’s radical architecture. Designed for a couple and their combined brood of kids, the house comprises two boldly angular, corrugated-metal-clad structures set opposite each other on a wood foundation with a tree growing through its centre.

PHOTO: Cristóbal Palma

The main building is a dramatic A-frame structure with a ground level wrapped in glass. Along one of its long window walls, a linear cooking island allows for the couple to prepare meals with an unparalleled panorama, all while serving their children and guests in the central dining area. Upstairs, two triangular dormitory-style bedrooms also have spectacular views through west-facing windows. The secondary building, an isosceles triangle laid on its side and modelled after Kazuo Shinohara’s 1974 Prism House in Japan — complete with a diagonal beam dividing its interior — houses the master bedroom and bathroom. As convivial as it is conceptual, Prism House is unlike any other getaway retreat in the world.

VDL, Vale de Cambra, by SUMMARY
PHOTO: Fernando Guerra

When briefed with building a cost-effective development that combined commercial with residential spaces, Porto-based architecture firm SUMMARY took it as an opportunity to flex the capabilities of its Gomos System, a modular prototype made up of prefabricated concrete panels, slabs and rings that founder Samuel Gonçalves first revealed at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

PHOTO: Fernando Guerra

Situated on a roadside in Vale de Cambra, Portugal, the structure makes for an impressive new landmark with a glass-fronted rectilinear commercial podium topped with six concrete cabins with asymmetrical rooflines. Assembled on-site, the pre-cast-concrete residential volumes (each 45 square metres in size) were left untreated to further mitigate costs, with the hardy material serving as structure, insulation and cladding; subtle variances between the units gives each its own character and enhances privacy from one to the other. Inside the single-storey dwellings, bright yellow and powder-blue were introduced by way of doors, room dividers and built-in kitchens, while ample sunlight streams through large sections of glazing. Winner of the 2020 AZ Award for Best Multi-Unit Residential Building, the complex has, as juror Omar Gandhi puts it, “an incredible clarity from idea to built form” and is a stunning example of how affordable can also be beautiful. 

Three Chimney House, Charlottesville, by TW Ryan Architecture
PHOTO: Joe Fletcher

Like its moniker suggests, TW Ryan Architecture’s Three Chimney House is defined by a trio of nine-metre-tall brick forms that tower above the home’s horizontal profile. In step, three exacting 3.7-metre-high walls shelter the 538-square-metre abode, each corresponding to a separate wing (one a private guest house) radiating around the main hall containing the living space and kitchen. Slender corridors link the muscular masses, which together riff such primary architectural typologies as the roof, wall and chimney in an abstract configuration of seemingly autonomous single- and two-storey volumes. It’s an austere and elemental — even primordial — extension of a remote 45-acre site in North Carolina, drawing on the very essence of regional building practices. In other words, it’s a structure both of its time and place yet, ultimately, far beyond either. 

High Park Residence, Toronto, by Batay-Csorba
PHOTO: Doublespace

Call it expressive simplicity. Accented by a vaulted carport, a monolithic facade of extruded brick makes Batay-Csorba’s High Park Residence an instant standout in a Toronto street of century-old homes. And while the handsome brick frontage lends the house an outward-facing connection to its Victorian surroundings, the vaulted geometry establishes a motif that carries through the living space, giving the home an elegant distinguished identity. 

PHOTO: Doublespace

Built for an Italian couple looking to age in place, the home is designed to include a carport without introducing the overwhelming presence of a street-front garage. Inside, the same vaulted ceilings — inspired by ancient Roman architecture — delineate and frame the living spaces in a rich chiaroscuro, drawing in natural light from the double-height volumes that punctuate the design. Upstairs, the second floor is organized into quiet, private rooms connected by bridges.

Skigard Hytte, Kvitfjell, by Mork-Ulnes Architects
PHOTO: Tor Ivan Boine

There’s truth in the maxim that great things often spring from humble origins. Witness the alluringly patterned facade, inspired by traditional farm fences, of Skigard Hytte, a 144-square-metre aerie designed by Mork-Ulnes Architects for a mountaintop site in Norway (skigard is Norwegian for the farm posts in question, while hytte means cottage). To cover the low-slung rectangular home, which sits on chunky wooden stilts, the wood posts were cut and arranged diagonally, making the structure almost vibrate visually. The effect is even more magical after it snows, when the slats are limned in white.

PHOTO: Tor Ivan Boine

Occupants could be forgiven for never venturing outdoors, however. Inside the home, which won this year’s AZ Award for Single-Family Houses, the ruggedness of the exterior is offset by a canvas of soft pine walls and floors. Square frustum ceilings also made of pine soar atop each of the four main spaces, which are connected by a central corridor. Of course, the outside is never far away: Almost every room in the cabin offers panoramic views of its sublime surroundings, making Skigard Hytte, in the words of AZ Awards juror Marion Weiss, “one of the most striking examples of a sculptural connection to site.”

Lighthouse, Shinjuku City, by YSLA
PHOTO: Munetaka Onodera

What do you do with a hotel during a global pandemic? For Tokyo-based studio YSLA the answer was simple: turn it into a towering residential complex. And, that’s exactly what the four-year-old studio did when their recently completed project Lighthouse in Japan’s Shinjuku City inaugurated amid COVID-19. 

PHOTO: Munetaka Onodera

Though the narrative of this nimble programmatic shift is captivating, so to is YSLA’s execution. Eight floors wrapped in cool grey tile cascade down to the streetscape, where the facade peels back in two grand scalloped gestures — as if pulling back a “levitating sheet” or curtain according to the architects — that reveal the glazed ground floor co-working space beneath (originally the hotel lobby). This material treatment continues within, complemented by a series of stepped platforms that define the interior environments. Custom modular furniture conceived by the firm paired with the addition of two balconies per floor further made the conversion from suites to residential units possible. In a year where much has been asked of architecture, Lighthouse (originally designed as a beacon for travellers) signals the far-reaching potential for architectural adaptation if designers remain agile.

Bewboc House, Kuala Lampur, by Fabian Tan
PHOTO: Ceavs Chua

Often it’s the simplest gestures that yield the greatest results. For Kuala Lampur-based Fabian Tan, the inclusion of a two storey vaulted concrete addition transformed a routine residential renovation in a suburban area of his hometown into the now iconic Bewboc House. Designed for a young couple, the architect leveraged the dramatic form to capitalize on the corner site and draw a deliberate contrast to plot’s existing residence. The now 343-square-metre complex divides public and private along the lines of old and new; the historic tropical home featuring a studio as well as the pair’s private quarters while cavernous volume housing the public spaces. In addition to containing a generous living area below, the structure shelters a cantilevered study on the second floor punctured with semi-circular voids to bathe the brutalist interior in light. Two grand wooden doors at one end of the barrel connect the muted interior to the lush landscape surrounding the home, providing the simultaneous sense of connection and protection. 

Duravcevic Ben-Ari House, Long Island, by SO – IL and Shenton Architects
PHOTO: Iwan Baan

For SO – IL’s first residential project designed from the ground up, the acclaimed Brooklyn-based studio took its vision in every direction — literally. Located on the windswept North Fork of Long Island and completed with Shenton Architects, the 600-square-metre house was laid out in an unusual yet iconic cruciform shape, enabling views of the surrounding landscape from each of its four wings. Those wings, which converge at a communal dining/library area in the centre of the home, were each given over to distinct functions — kitchen, living room, master suite, bedrooms — while a Japanese-style engawa stretches seamlessly around the base of the structure to extend the living space outdoors.

PHOTO: Iwan Baan

At first glance, the house has all the trappings of standard domestic architecture (gabled roofs, latticework), but a closer look reveals how cleverly those elements are subverted. At one point, the peaked roofs meet in a protective swoop over a terrace, while the latticework, made of stainless steel, supports an expanded section of one wing to frame views of the seascape beyond. It’s a masterpiece, in short, of function as well as form, each flourish having a purpose. Look for a feature article on the project in Azure’s January/February issue.

Best of 2020: Houses of the Year

Award-winning complexes, a hotel-turned-dwelling and sensitive additions to historic neighbourhoods: these residences prove that the home is still at the fore of architectural experimentation.

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