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F E B R U A R Y   2 0 0 2


DENISE COOPER HAS DECIDED NOT TO SEEK "outside help," as she delicately puts it, for her problem. For years, she has hoarded shoes, including a pair she’s had since she was 14. Asked for numbers, the 34-year-old lawyer shakes her curly mop in mock dread; she’s never dared count them. But therapy is close at hand, and from a novel source—an architect. Not any old architect, but her husband, Drew Mandel, who recently built his bride a house that measures all of 11 and a half feet wide on the inside. Shoe purging is not just encouraged, it’s mandatory. That their house, on Marlborough Avenue off Yonge, echoes a shoebox—albeit a slim, early modernist shoebox—is mere coincidence: the shape was the only one Mandel could wangle into such a tight space.

Marlborough’s tidy red-brick streetscape had always reminded Cooper of certain agreeable parts of Greenwich Village, but when her husband showed her the site, in the summer of 1998, she was nonplussed. The former setting for a one-car garage, it didn’t deserve the dignity of being called a lot, in her mind. How could this "piece of grass," as she insisted on describing it, accommodate a couch, much less a house?

She had little time to adjust her imagination, because another prospective buyer hovered. While Cooper waffled, Mandel suggested she put the issue out of her mind and go to the gym for a few hours. By the time she returned, he had built a three-dimensional cardboard model of what the house could look like, complete with plastic windows, stairs and a few movable options. "He doesn’t do anything half assed, this guy."

They were meeting Cooper’s family for dinner, so they took the maquette, about 18 by 24 inches, to the Studio Café at the Four Seasons. As their young nephews, who live on York Mills—sized lots, jeered "You can’t build a house in there!" and the grown-ups expressed more polite incredulity, Cooper was won over by Mandel’s commitment to the project. "Architects don’t get many chances to do things exactly their way," she explains. "It was his baby, and I had complete trust."

There may or may not be a place reserved in heaven for indulgent wives, but it doesn’t matter, because Denise Cooper's reward is in midtown. Completed this fall, the flat-roofed house sits among the neighbouring gables with the self-possession of the truly gorgeous. At night, with its intersecting rectangles of glass, concrete and wood, the outside glows like a Mondrian-style lantern. Inside, surprisingly generous spaces unfold on five levels, knitted together by wooden floors and ceilings, pure white walls and great expanses of glass.

GIVEN THAT DREW MANDEL IS ONLY 34, THE road to Marlborough Avenue was not lengthy, but it had some suggestive twists. He grew up off Bayview just south of the 401, on a "beautiful little street with huge lots and tiny bungalows." (Those bungalows have all been knocked down in favour of significantly larger dwellings, and by chance Mandel drove past while his childhood house was being demolished. He took a brick, which he plans to incorporate into a tool shed to be built at the back of his garden.) When he was a teenager, the family moved to a much bigger neo-Georgian house that, except for its size, struck the future modernist as ‘‘completely unappealing."

By the time he graduated in architecture, in 1995, from the University of Waterloo, his role models were in place: clean-lined 20th-century masters like Rudolph Schindler and John Lautner, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright, especially his Usonian designs of the 1950s—simple, light-filled houses made of plywood and brick.

Fortuitously, one of Mandel’s first postgraduate projects was the renovation of a Toronto house designed by a devotee of Wright, Ron Thom. Although Fraser House, built in the late 1960s on Old George Place, is more or less free-form, Mandel remembered its detailing and use of wood when it came to designing his own rigorously geometric house a few years later.

He found his "piece of grass" through MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, where he’s an associate. Originally attached to the neighbour’s house to the east, the lot had long been severed and was owned by David Miller, one of the firm’s principals. Planning a contemporary house with a rounded roof at the rear, Miller and his architect wife, Amy Falkner, had obtained a minor variance allowing them to build to the very edges of the property line without the usual margin of grass or ground cover. (It’s only because the houses on each side are set back from the lot line that there is any space at all between the Mandel-Cooper house and its neighbors.) To support development, the municipality had allowed a substantial increase in the floor space, from 908 to more than 1,280 square feet above ground.

When Miller finally decided against proceeding with his plans for the lot, he looked for potential buyers. Although a builder offered slightly more money than Mandel and Cooper, Miller had confidence that his young associate would design a more interesting house, so he sold them the land for $150,000. When Cooper returned to her office (she is vice-president of business and legal affairs for CHUM Television) with the news that they had just bought a 13-by-us-foot strip of land, a colleague responded, "You’ve bought a bowling lane!"

"No," Cooper said, "we’ve bought two bowling lanes."

THE PROCESS OF DESIGNING AND RE-designing, all done during the evenings and on weekends, was long and obsessive. Having "a bit of an ego thing," as Mandel says, when it came to differing from Miller’s original design, he would swing wide in another direction—cutting the stairs across the back of the house, for example, rather than perpendicular to the street—before returning to several of Miller’s notions "just because they were smart moves."

At work, Mandel has drawn plans for multiplexes, community centers, libraries and banks, and that mix of commercial and institutional design stood him in good stead when it came to his own unconventional dwelling. Worried above all that a skinny house with no side windows would be dark and cramped, he introduced so much light, down to skylights in the shower, that, he now wonders whether he’s overdone it. The two ramps he installed, from the entrance of the house to the living room and from the master bedroom to the second bedroom, are the most dramatic departures from the usual residential repertoire. But in a place with roughly one room per level, the gentle 10 per cent incline (just below the grade requiring a handrail) offers a restful, perspective-shifting alternative to stairs.

Look at the drawing for the house, and it seems a bit like a Rubik’s cube, or a jigsaw puzzle. But when you’re inside, you move logically from the semi-subterranean room at the front of the house south up the ramp to the living room, then north up five stairs to the dining room-kitchen floor, then south again up the house’s only full flight of stairs to the master bedroom and bathroom, and finally north up the second ramp to the other bedroom. Far from feeling contrived, the circulation has the kind of natural inevitability Mandel wanted. As he says, in an open concept house you "stage-set the zones." It’s all about how you carve up the space and move through it.

Construction on the sliver of a site was a "ballet," in Cooper’s words, where each move demanded exquisite calibration. Normal platform framing, where a house is built floor by floor, was impossible, so the contractors resorted to balloon framing. Steel supports for the entire 38-foot length of the walls were put up first, the floors locked in afterwards. Mandel pores over his pictures of the construction as a father does over snapshots of his baby, pointing out the quantity of steel ("You could melt it down and build a car"). Sighing over the purity of the frame, unsullied by walls or glass, he says, "It’s never been as good as it was then." As a matter of fact, the finished product has retained much of the geometric beauty of its skeleton.

Cooper’s grandparents had a tradition of giving a washer and dryer to each grandchild for their first house, and there were jokes about putting the appliances on the site first, then building the house around them to ensure they would fit. In the same spirit, Mandel installed the big living-room window on a pivot, so that large pieces could be moved in through it if necessary.

Mandel’s compulsive approach to design continued when it came to sourcing materials, fixtures and furniture. Intended to cut costs, the process involved him in fascinating conversations with people who love materials and craftsmanship as much as he does. Mentally, he roamed from Owen Sound, the source of the ledge-rock for the bathroom sinks, to Australia. (Down Under became a favorite hunting ground because of its cheap dollar and the time difference, which made midnight calls feasible). The Australian faucets— knock-offs of a Scandinavian design costing three times as much—are one of Mandel’s favourite finds.

Cooper made only two requests: a separate bathtub and shower, and room for a sizable part of the Denise Cooper Shoe Archive. Why not all the shoes? Her eyes widen as she admits that no house could contain all of them (some are stored at her parents’ place), then reminds me that paring down is part of the therapy.

The couple share a similar aesthetic and a well-honed compatibility that stretches back to junior high, where they were friends. Cooper liked being consulted about finishes and fixtures, but only after Mandel had edited the choices to a shortlist of three or so. The reddish-brown floors, the mahogany ceilings (a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright) and the built-in dressing table in the bedroom and entertainment console in the living room (inspired by Ron Thom) are the house’s biggest hits of colour. Inside, the prevailing white, wood and glass enlarge the spaces; the very occasional uses of colour, like the cream-of-aqua glass tiles from Vancouver lining the downstairs bathroom walls, are grace notes.

During construction, Cooper sometimes referred to herself as the CFO on the project, because it was her job to say "It’s beautiful but too expensive." When Mandel wanted a hyper-contemporary polished black concrete floor, she straightened him out on that point, and, says Mandel, "I’m very thankful." Not only would it have required its own separate radiant heating system, but the jatoba cherrywood floors they chose instead have a warm richness that offsets the tall, bare white walls. The mellowness of the wood freed Mandel to be more "moderno" elsewhere, as he puts it.

Mandel and Cooper don’t like talking about the total cost, but at $185 a square foot they managed a superb house with a yet to be finished garden in downtown Toronto. Although six months ago, in the throes of construction, Cooper said "No frigging way" when asked if she would do this again, now she says, "Absolutely." Before she can stop herself, she starts talking about how much easier it will be next time, now that Mandel has amassed a vast pool of skilled tradespeople and products. Then she comes to her senses:

"But I’ll never get him out of here."