Architecture: The Lighthouse of Alexandra

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on June 14, 2014. Photo by Adrien Williams.

We’ve come to equate the Mile-Ex/Marconi-Alexandra neighbourhood with architectural experimentation. A stroll in the area might lead to the assumption that anyone can waltz in there and do whatever they like, but it’s never that simple.

In many cases, it’s limitations that push architects to solve certain problems with cunning design.

Take the pictured Alexandra Residence.

Like many Montreal abodes, it was part of a row, so it had a house on each side. Any obvious opportunities for fenestration were from the front (south) and the back (north). So Stéphane Rasselet, architect and co-founder of _naturehumaine, created a five-foot-wide, 20-foot-long skylight that cuts through the house lengthwise, allowing daylight to stream in from above. It’s located over the entrance on the east side, between the first and second floors, creating a break in the roof.

“From there, all the light coming in from the south seeps in, lighting spaces that are at the centre of the house and on its second floor, like the bathroom and the bedrooms,” Rasselet points out. “The skylight also illuminates living spaces on the ground floor, like the dining room and kitchen.”

Most of the house benefits from the skylight, but it probably produces the most interesting effect on the upstairs bathroom, which is just next to and underneath it. Because this particular space is walled off with frosted glass, its discretion is secured while the bathroom reaps plenty of sunlight.

The homeowners are contractors who had collaborated with Rasselet before. They purchased the property in 2012 and decided to completely reconstruct it to better suit their needs. Maximum daylight may have been the leitmotif driving the design, but Rasselet also had dual functions to consider; the house was part family home and part office space.

To separate the entrance from the living spaces, a pivoting panel was installed near the kitchen, creating a more private vestibule. That said, when the owners want to take clients inside the house, the dining area and recessed living room are ideal for longer meetings.

Rasselet drew much inspiration from contemporary Japanese architecture.

“You’ll have closed spaces and open spaces,” he explains. “In Japan, neighbours can be very close, so certain zones require more intimacy, while others can be more communal.”

The more palpable Japanese influences are in the stark contrasts of the black and white surfaces, and the sleek lines. It’s meant to convey simplicity and cleanliness, even if there are many little details working together to make it look that way.

It’s in the ash cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom and occasional wood flooring, lending earth tones to interiors with a largely metallic palette. It’s the grey and white pattern created with the mosaic tiles in the bathroom, playing with a multitude of different textures. It’s the way the front windows don’t quite align with those of the neighbours. It’s the random bricks that were laid backward to display a lighter hue on the facade.

Then there’s the slightly protruding white box, floating as if it were its own entity. It’s this feature that truly defines the concept of the house. From the inside, it outlines the skylight and emphasizes the length of the house. It’s also where the master bedroom is located, with an office in the mezzanine just above it, leading to a rooftop patio that’s delineated by an asymmetrical balcony ledge.

“We went from the slot of the skylight, and it led to developing the white box,” Rasselet recalls, adding: “Compared to other neighbourhoods, Mile-Ex is eclectic, and the city knows it. It’s great for architects and clients who want to do something different.”

Originality is a good start, but what gives any residential project permanence is the way it interacts with its setting; what it takes and gives back.

“In an urban context,” Rasselet says, “you have to pay attention to the quality of light; you have to study the sun’s trajectory, and the impact of the volume of neighbouring houses. These things all have to be analyzed carefully before designing a project, because they’re often what will generate the concept of the home.”

Rasselet’s design acknowledges many intersecting realities. There’s life inside and outside this house. It’s a family home that’s distinctly urban, meshing effortlessly with Mile-Ex’s diverse built environment. It’s in and of the place.

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The house is 3,300 square feet, and was completed in 2013. Materials used for facade: brown brick; anodized aluminum panels (framing windows and awning at the entrance); galvanized industrial grate (balcony); black and white pre-painted AD-300 metal panels by Vicwest.

Materials used for interiors: large light grey tile flooring; ash flooring; ash cabinets (kitchen and bathroom); black steel plate steps (living room); white and grey mosaic tiles, Mano by Céragrès (bathroom)

Clients and contractors: Olivier Beaulieu & Gentiane Godin, Fob Construction, 514-829-9278, and Orbitat (orbitat.ca)

Tips from the architect:

• Never underestimate how much time a project will take, from the initial design to the last coat of paint.

• You also shouldn’t underestimate the surprises you’ll have along the way. In this case, we found out during the reconstruction that the foundation of one of the neighbouring houses was laid into the owners’ property. So, we had to change our plans around that.

• Before I even start working on a project, I like to invite clients to the office. It’s so important for clients and architects to click, and that first visit is when it happens.

_naturehumaine was founded in 2003 by Stéphane Rasselet and Marc-André Plasse, who has since moved to New York. Specializing in residential projects, _naturehumaine has created critically acclaimed homes. A multiplex it did on St-Zotique in Mile-Ex was awarded the “Prix d’excellence” by the Ordre des architectes du Québec in 2013. The company is working on multi-residential projects on Marquette and St-Ambroise Sts., a few renovations in Outremont, and lakeside homes in the Eastern Townships and the Laurentians. See some the firm’s projects at http://www.naturehumaine.com

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