Design Diary

A personal review of design creations.

Bigwin Island Club Cabins

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Land of indigenous population for centuries, developed as luxury retreat since 1922, the Bigwin Island hosts now brand new club cabins by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.


Nestled among maple, pine and ash trees, the first three cabins of a planned community of 40 have a sweeping view, down to the golf course and the lake beyond.

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The 40 cabins will follow three design templates, each inspired by a different type of landscape found on the island: linear on the lake, courtyard in the woods, and pinwheel on the meadow. 

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects’ design process begins by listening to the land. The cabins stand on storied ground. Named after Ojibway Chief John Bigwin, the island was historically a home to sacred spaces, a place of significance to the region’s Indigenous population. The first golf course on Bigwin Island was built in 1922, and for decades the island was the site of a glittering luxury resort — the summer home of Canadian industrial titans, Hollywood stars, and even the Dutch royal family.

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This development is part of property owner Jack Wadsworth’s plan for the island’s revitalisation. Wadsworth nixed a proposed 150-room hotel in favour of 40 guest houses, ranging from 114 to 125 square metre each, and launched a design competition for the project. The brief was a project that would respect the island’s history, the Muskoka region’s distinctive architectural aesthetic, and the environment, employing practical construction techniques and maximizing energy efficiency and sustainability.

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects won the competition with a project that expresses archetypal concepts. Exquisitely crafted from natural materials, with a quietly assertive design, the cabins reference the big, sheltering roofs of Muskoka’s historic cottages and boathouses, and even evoke the interior of a canoe. Each cabin is assembled from a simple kit of parts: a screened-in porch, a deck, a hearth, a great room, a sleeping box, and a roof, all fitted seamlessly together.

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An extruded box, clad in shiplapped wood, adjoins a glass pavilion holding an open plan living and dining space, which is topped by a deep hip roof, clad with cedar shingles. The exterior is understated, and the interior is dramatic, airy, and gracious — the main living space of the pavilion rises to a peak. Shiplapped wood also lines the interior of the bed box and hearth, enhancing the seamlessness between indoors and out. The room is naturally lit from above via a periscope window in the gable. The bedrooms and bathrooms (two of each) are spare and elegant. 

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Although sophisticated in appearance, the buildings employ practical construction techniques. The roof structure is made from ordinary engineered trusses, elevated through meticulous design into something beautiful. An important principle in practice for MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple is to touch the land lightly, to minimize disruption of the landscape. This simplicity of craft is, in part, a response to the significant challenges of building on an island during the short cold period between the fall and spring golf seasons. Environmental sustainability is also built into their construction. Materials and labour were locally sourced. The geothermal heating system harvests heat from the lake and radiates it from the floors. In the summer, a natural, passive ventilation system channels hot air up and away through the peaked roof. 

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The ambition of this project transcends the individual guesthouses; Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple is bringing to Bigwin Island a vision of community. The buildings engage not only with the landscape, but with each other. They are sited in clusters, where their transparency and openness put them in conversational relationships. The spaces between them are small enough to allow neighbours to wave each other over; some will encircle meadows ideally sized for cookouts and children’s games.

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At once familiar and experimental, respectful and assertive, and durable enough to stand up to the demanding climate of their location while elegantly referencing its layered heritage and beauty, the Bigwin Island cabins offer a balanced, inventive and sustainable response to a complex architectural challenge.

Pictures by Doublespace Photography.

Saint George Hotel: Toronto’s untold story

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In the heart of Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, the Saint George Hotel mixes local heritage with a tasteful contemporary flavour.


The interior design of the Saint George Hotel communicates a narrative of local pride, diverse heritage and contemporary culture to create a hotel experience that celebrates Toronto’s layered history and sensibilities. The 14-story hotel integrates elements of Toronto’s culture and personality, giving guests a distinct sense of place. The experience of being a guest in their own well-appointed apartment. With 188 guest rooms and suites, a fitness centre, meeting and event space, the property provides unique guest accommodations within a neighbourhood setting.

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Guests initial experience with the hotel comes via an exterior black wood awning at the main entry, giving the hotel street presence and welcoming guests for their stay. The lighting is a subtle nod to the iconic marquee signs that once occupied the neighbourhood.

The most visually striking element on the exterior is the 10-storey high hand-painted mural on the west-facing facade of the building. Mason Studio commissioned well-known street artist BirdO to create a surreal geometric bird that continues the narrative of the interior experience to the exterior.

Upon entry, the reception area features a marble desk framed with wooden arches, back dropped by a hand painted mural of a misty Toronto-inspired scene. Adjacent to reception is a guest lounge, designed to feel like a living room. The space is a collection of bespoke furniture, artwork, lighting and objects, many crafted by local makers that continue to tell the story of local culture and design.  

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Arches are used throughout the hotel as a physical indicator of moving from one experience to another. They visually guide guests throughout the space while paying homage to Toronto’s diverse architectural style and eras.

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A 40-sqm lounge situated on the main floor, just outside the meeting room is realised in darker, more saturated tones to convey a feeling of intimacy. A custom bar and beverage area offer the opportunity for guests to relax before entering the meeting room.

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On the guestroom levels, a collection of original, small vintage black-and-white photographs from a couple’s vacation to Toronto appear at each guest entry. These images tell an intimate story of early post-war vacationers discovering the city.

The suites are a continuation of the nostalgic nod to the layered heritage of the neighbourhood. The rooms are designed with a residential approach by housing a collection of art and custom designed furniture and lighting that is seemingly collected over time.

Every element in the suites is carefully designed to provide guests with an experience parallel to a well-appointed apartment in the neighbourhood, offering guests with an alternative to more traditional hotel accommodations.

 

Photography: Naomi Finlay

A Treehouse Hanging From A Cliff

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We all love treehouses but often their comfort is limited. 90 minutes away from Montréal, yh2 created a home that benefits from an untouched environment.


"Dans l'Escarpement" is a light-filled house, literally hanging from a cliff (hence its name). It is located at the Domaine Valdurn (Saint-Faustin-Du-Lac-Carré), on land pertaining to an estate started over a hundred years ago and known for its remarkable landscapes and pristine lakes.

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The clients commissioned the architects to design their house in such a way that it would blend in the hill and cause as little disruption as possible to its surroundings.

To keep the house’s imprint on the ground to a minimum, the house was designed around two concrete “boxes”, the first one, vertical, and the second one, horizontal. A totally glassed-in volume was anchored to both. The main entrance and the owners’ private suite are on the upper level of the 3-storey volume. One level down, one finds a small office/library area, adjacent to the kitchen dining area. The lowest level of this vertical “box” features a sauna/spa facility.

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The one-level horizontal “box” was set a few meters away from the first volume. Planned as guest accommodation, it gives direct access to the forest floor and connects to the sauna/spa area from the outside. The intermediate level is the true heart of this house with its windowed walls opening up to the surrounding forest. The living dining area expands outdoors with a terrace built on the roof of the guests’ suite.

The prevailing material used inside is mahogany, selected for its enduring qualities and for its rich hues. In the living dining area, floors, ceilings, beams, window frames and kitchen cabinets are all finished with this rich dark wood recalling the trees just beyond. With light constantly shifting, interiors and exteriors seem to mesh. Keeping within the same color palette, Corten steel was introduced for the fireplace and for outdoor sheathing. Exposed concrete was used extensively on exterior walls; symbolically, it refers to the huge boulders, which are characteristic of the territory.

Access to the house is walking down a metallic gangway stretching from a concrete garage near the parking area. As one progresses on the light bridge structure, particularly on a misty day, there is a sensation of going towards a tree house floating in mid-air.

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Pictures courtesy of Maxime Brouillet