The vernacular architecture of Muskoka has a distinctive quality of its own. This resort region, around two hours to the north of Toronto, is well known for its picturesque lakes and rivers, bordered by boathouses and cottages that make the most of the surroundings with their porches, decks and terraces. Todd Saunders’ Lily Pad house, on the edge of Ontario’s Lake Rosseau, offers a 21st Century reinterpretation of Muskoka vernacular fused with a range of Modernist and contemporary influences drawn from North America and Scandinavia.
The project was commissioned by a businessman and his wife, who are based in the city but have enjoyed spending time at an island summer cottage in Muskoka for around thirty years. They found a sixteen acre site on the edge of Lake Rosseau, which connects with Lake Muskoka and Lake Joseph through a network of waterways, and began thinking about building something for themselves that would integrate with the setting but also be decidedly modern.
The couple were already thinking about the project when they took a trip to the Fogo Inn in Newfoundland, designed by Saunders. Their time on Fogo Island, getting to know the architect’s work first hand, convinced them that they should get in touch with Saunders. Saunders designed a five-bedroom house, along with a separate guest house as well as a boathouse on the shore of the lake itself, with Matt Ryan serving as the local architect of record. Both the architect and his clients wanted to maximise the sense of connection with the landscape, while creating a home with a dynamic and original character of its own. Based upon the programme set by the family, the design of Lily Pad explores the idea of elevating the key living spaces to maximise the view while also integrating porches and roof terraces into the form and outline of the building.
Saunders references the influence of the Muskoka vernacular tradition of outdoor rooms with a lakeside view, as well as mentioning the roof terraces commonly seen in countries like Morocco, where these elevated rooms are often one of the most tempting spaces in urban riads and townhouses. With Lily Pad, the roof terrace becomes the final destination within an ambitious ‘promenade architecturale’ – somewhat reminiscent of the journey seen at Le Corbusier’s iconic Villa Savoye (1931) – that takes you up from the ground plane towards the floating first floor and, finally, to the roof.
There is a choice of circulation routes that take you through the intriguing ribbon- like form of the house as the ground floor twists, turns and ascends as it connects with the upper storey. The imaginative plan of the house also offers a way of bypassing the two internal stairways at ground floor level, which features the entrance hall and four generously sized bedroom suites, as well as a much-loved media room with tiered seating around the junction between the two storeys. Alternatively, an external stairway at the front of the building provides a more direct link to a substantial, open plan living space at first floor level with a sliding bank of glass facing the lake. When the glass slides back, this space becomes – in effect – an enticing open porch, or ‘Muskoka room’.
Offering zones for dining and seating arranged around a fireplace, as well as a bar, this is a flexible and fluid space. Although it can be used as a porch all year round, benefitting from this elevated position floating above the landscape, it comes into its own during the summer months in particular. The clients’ master suite sits at the far end of the cantilevered bridge that forms the upper storey. Floating beyond the main body of the house, the master bedroom levitates in a dramatic manner, becoming a lookout station facing the lake view to the front.
The separate guest house explores some similar themes and ideas as the main house, while forming a private satellite for visiting friends and family. The boathouse, however, has its own distinct identity. While the structure is steel framed, the exterior of the building is coated in crafted timber, referencing the Muskoka boat building tradition, with the streamlined profile of these vessels sometimes compared to Italian Riva pleasure craft. A roof deck on top of the boathouse offers another enticing outdoor room, but with a more vivid and direct sense of connection with the lake.