I first glimpsed the gold-tinged facade of 1070 Queen Street West through construction hoarding in late April. As the weeks passed, the new face of the one-time appliance shop slowly revealed itself: deep brass-finished metal panels frame the storefront window like a viewfinder, extending to sheath a side passageway leading to the back. On the second storey, graphic black railings provide more intriguing framing, as do the statement lead-coated copper dormers jutting out of restored slate shingles.
I had to know who was behind this radical transformation, and I found them on the third floor, in a sun-drenched office beyond the reflective copper dormers. Here, Ja Architecture Studio is at work on a range of unique homes that meld captivating facades, reinvented sites and dynamic programs. Two of its principals, Behnaz Assadi and Nima Javidi, set up shop in 2008, and the third principal, Hanieh Rezaei, joined the partnership in 2012. All are transplants from Tehran, Iran, who became friends at the University of Toronto and were eager to start building modern homes in the city. In a similar, risk-taking style, they self-financed their first major project.
The gamble paid off: the Offset House in Davisville stops passersby in their tracks. Its two cubes intersect in a novel spin on the split-level home, exemplifying the studio’s bold use of geometric forms. Working with a narrow infill lot, they devised two long and linear spaces to capture the shifting sunlight. Into the stacked, white-stuccoed facades, they punched two vertical windows, framed in Douglas fir with matching exterior shutters. More dramatic apertures filter light into the 185-square-metre house: a full-length skylight, glazed cut-outs in interior walls, and a window wall overlooking the back terrace. “We try to find ‘excuses’ in the context in order to stay away from the boxy language of contemporary houses,” says Javidi.
The attention-grabber brought in clients craving out-of-the-glass-box homes. Currently, the firm is reconfiguring the interiors of a Dovercourt Road house to create a multi-unit with two separate entrances, while revamping the exterior both to stand out from and connect to its surroundings. This time, they split the facade horizontally, with one half sporting folds that play up the sloped faux-mansard roofs of neighbouring homes, and the opposite half featuring a double bay window.
Experimental residential design is a stepping stone to the firm’s larger-scale speculative and international projects. On their communal worktable is a paper model of Driftwood, the cubic cloud the firm has entered into the design competition for the Guggenheim Helsinki. Employing Finnish wood technology coupled with parametric design, it recalls the Offset House (if it had gone through a rapid mutation). And in Tehran, a 10-storey mixed-use project promises to open even more doors to experimentation on a larger scale. “We like the idea of having a real design studio culture,” says Javidi, “one that engages a range of scales, from architecture to landscaping to urban design.” Whatever they come up with, surely it will incite the curious to come knocking.
Originally published in our Winter 2014 issue as Calling Card.