Don An wants to make some academic noise in the design industry. The intern architect’s portfolio includes managing billion-dollar projects in China, winning a design competition for Jeunes sans Frontires (a French-language public secondary school in Brampton, Ont.) and working as a key designer on the schematic design for the notable – and perhaps now infamous – Federal Building redevelopment project in Edmonton. However, it is his newest, small-scale design venture that he hopes will get people in the industry talking about Abax Designer Homes Inc., where he is a director.
Photography by Curtis Comeau
It is impossible to drive down a particular Ritchie-area street, just south of Whyte Avenue and east of 99th Street, without noticing An’s towering minimalist black and white duplexes, which stand loud and proud against the small post-war bungalows that inhabit most of the street. The infill project, titled House Monochrome – Positive/Negative, offers a study not only in contrast, but also in simplicity, the primary driver behind An’s design choices.
“I set a rule,” says An, who has previously worked for two well-known architecture firms, Stantec and Kasian. “The rule is simplicity. If I can achieve my goal with one line, I won’t do it with two lines.”
Though clean, sparse architecture now rules his design aesthetic, An was originally inspired to become an architect after seeing the visually complex and dynamic works of artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaello Sanzio and Hans Holbein. He fondly remembers a set of three books, Sketches by Renaissance Masters, that he purchased in his early teens for a whopping 0.45 Chinese yuan renminbi (less than US$0.09) each.
“My parents, who were both structural engineers, had a combined monthly income of about 121 renminbi,” says An, whose family was among the many who were poor in post-Cultural Revolution China. “What I spent on those tiny books was almost one per cent of our household income at the time.” An still has them.
An completed his professional architecture degree in China and worked for three large design institutes there before moving to Montreal in 2001. He then attended McGill University to complete a post-graduate studies program called Affordable Homes. “Before that course, my focus was the style,” says An, “[Through that course,] I developed an ability to do a very detailed analysis as an approach to design.”
Blueprints for some of his projects include such details as how certain roof angles and window dormer placements could affect sun exposure for neighbours and how adding cantilever eaves could allow for maximum use of a space. His computer-generated plans appear as sliced and diced cross-sections that study every possible angle.
The four units at House Monochrome, each about 1,850 square feet on three floors, make efficient use of light and space. While still in construction mode, the homes already display characteristics of An’s goal for a minimalist style. The crisp white walls provide a clean background for the occasional pop of black – a natural gas wall-mounted fireplace in the living room and ebony backsplash tiles and cabinetry in the kitchen. A tiny, round white sink on the third floor is grounded by exposed black PVC pipe and black tile.
To make the most efficient use of natural light, An had skylights installed. He then had windows installed on certain second- and third-floor interior walls – an unusual application, but one that An says allows elements of the home to work together rather than be isolated from one another. Natural light can pass through interior panes into more enclosed spaces, such as the bathroom on the second floor and the studio on the third floor, opening and brightening up those spaces. In addition, windows throughout the homes have no casings; instead, An opted to have window drywall returns installed, resulting in a simple, modern look.
“I eliminated all decorative elements,” An says, noting that decoration limits people’s imaginations when used in a conventional way, and that he encourages homeowners to be more creative.
While the interior of the house is quiet and restrained, the exterior is decidedly bold. When asked how he chose the black-and-white palette, he calls the choice experimental. He knew, however, that the stark contrast between the black and the white would have a big visual impact.
“I can’t do an analysis on this part,” he says. “It’s a decision made with the eyes, not with the brain.”
The way in which the colours appear, however, is very deliberate. Based loosely on a house in Denmark called Sinus House, designed by architectural firm CEBRA, the layered inversion makes it appear as though chunks of the exterior faade have been cut away to expose a different colour.
Though An considers his projects unique – he also has a similar venture in the Old Strathcona area – he wants his next project to be even bigger, more avant garde. As he completes his current duplexes, he considers not just his desire to showcase his skill and creativity and to satisfy his personal curiosity, but also the need to gain more confidence in his place in the market, as well as gain exposure and recognition.
“I know the market is looking for something different,” he says. “I need to demonstrate that this kind of development can work.”