Design Diary

A personal review of design creations.

Bigwin Island Club Cabins


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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


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.


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.  


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.


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.


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

The Cathedral of Aviation turns into Iconic Hotel

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When it opened in 1962, Eero Saarinen’s Trans World Flight Center immediately became an iconic architectural masterpiece. After years of closure and being threatened to be destroyed, welcome to the TWA Hotel.

This is a great tribute to Eero Saarinen that has just happened in New York. His wonderful cathedral of aviation has recently re-opened as a hotel. When the TWA Flight Center closed its doors in 2001, few believed to be able to return inside. Speculators wanted to tear it down because it was somehow obstructing the airport to grow.

It would have been a disaster for this incredible building. When Eero Saarinen was commissioned in 1956, the airline (Trans World Flight or TWA) wanted this building to capture the “spirit of flight” in the booming golden age of the jet airplanes. Saarinen’s master plan was to use curves and interconnected spaces. From the sky (or at least above), the roof imitates a bird in flight with its large wings. 

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The beauty of the inside resides in a continuous ribbon of elements, all whisking themselves in from the exterior, so that ceilings run into walls and those walls become floors.


"We wanted passengers passing through the building to experience a fully-designed environment, in which each part arises from another and everything belongs to the same formal world" stated Eero Saarinen during construction in 1959. Naturally, all details were carefully prepared such as the large panels of glass beneath the concrete with their purple-tint. These glass walls are tilted towards the exterior at an angle as they reach the ceiling. It was intended for viewers to imagine looking out from a plane to the earth below. 

 The sad part of the story was that Saarinen died of a brain tumour in 1961, a year before the structure was completed. 

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The TWA Terminal became an official landmark in 1994, voted on by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Several projects tried to use the location as an aviation museum or a restaurant but none were turned into reality. 

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This until Tyler Morse, CEO and Managing Partner of MCR and MORSE Development had an ambitious project with the building.

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“We restored and re-imagined his landmark with the same care that he devoted to his design. No detail went overlooked — from the millwork by Amish artisans to the custom font inspired by Saarinen’s own sketches to the one-of-a-kind manhole covers.”

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The TWA Hotel is now hosting a red-carpeted lounge with a cocktail bar, a ‘Paris Café’ with 200-seat restaurant (in the pure TWA’s culinary tradition to offer the best of European cuisine), a real former jet, ‘Connie’ turned into a cocktail lounge. 

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In total, more than 4,600 sqm of events space including a 1,500 sqm ballroom, a rooftop with an infinity pool and the world’s biggest hotel gym are completing the offer together with 512 rooms (with extra strong glazing to remove any inconvenience of engines ‘noise from airplanes).

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Of course, and thankfully, the furniture is by… Eero Saarinen !

Picture credits: Max Touhey, Rico Cruz, B Dorsey.

Al Faya Lodge from grocery to boutique


In the heart of the desert, at the foot of Mount Alvaah (Mleiha), the Al Faya Lodge is the new addition to the Sharjah Collection.

Close to the UAE’s prehistoric crimson desert landscape with proximity to the UAE’s first petroleum pump, the Al Faya Lodge is a new addition to the Shurooq’s Collection - a group of distinctive boutique hotels and eco-retreats purposefully located in key locations throughout the Sharjah Emirate. 


The architecture and design of the Al Faya Lodge are made by architect Jonathan Ashmore and his ANARCHITECT practice. Two single-story, stone-built buildings from the 1960s, previously occupied as a clinic and grocery store, have been re-imagined into a contemporary boutique lodge and restaurant. 


Together with the addition of a newly built saltwater spa building, Al Faya Lodge is set to become a new and unique destination in the UAE. 

The architecture and interior interventions purposely contrast the original fabric of the existing buildings. CorTen steel emphasizes the new additional layers that have been introduced to repurpose and extend the spaces to accommodate a new series of programmes. In doing so, ANARCHITECT has inadvertently drawn more focus to the original buildings, creating clearly defined thresholds and the juxtaposition between that what is old and what is new.

The Lodge comprises of a dining, reception room, library & roof terrace. Within each room of the five-bedroom lodge is a feature skylight for star-gazing, the luxe room has the added experience of a private roof terrace and dual aspect. The purpose-built spa building houses an open-air saltwater pool and three salt spa experiences; heat, water and salt inhalation.

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The Al Faya Lodge is to be booked in its entirety, with the spa experience available exclusively to the lodge’s guests. The spa offers complete privacy with a self-service approach during the guests’ stay. The restaurant and visitors’ reception are located on the other side of the property and comprise a dining room, outdoor terrace, fire-pit and a public roof terrace. 


The choice of material is contextual and relevant not only to the harsh, arid, desert climate but also to the historical presence of the iron in the region. CorTen steel, teak hardwoods and plastered-render offer a subtle tonal change and texture to the buildings which are intended to mature with timeless longevity in response to the impact of the climat

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The Lodge, Spa and Restaurant buildings are divided by a through-road which creates an unusual and dynamic urbanity to the master plan of the retreat. The buildings together with the historical petroleum pump command a presence to the road in the scarce desert landscape and will become both a destination and stop-off for those who know and for those who then discover this new intervention. 

Pictures by Fernando Guerra