LUCIO PICCIANO SOUGHT TO CREATE AN URBAN VILLAGE WITH HIS HOUSE DESIGNS IN VANCOUVER’S RENFREW HEIGHTS NEIGHBOURHOOD.
As you walk east from Vancouver’s 29th Avenue SkyTrain station, you are met by Renfrew Heights’s familiar mix of seventies-era Vancouver Specials and a few remaining prewar houses. The mix of stucco and brick Specials and fir-clad 1930s houses is what one expects in this family-oriented neighbourhood that borders Burnaby and features stunning mountain views.
But as you approach the intersection of Picton Street and Wellington Avenue, something entirely new meets the eye. A corrugated metal-clad house, set on a long, narrow lot, gleams in the sun, its upper balcony filled with lavender and its green roof brimming with plants. It shares its subdivided lot with a neighbouring three-storey house, clad in Galvalume and cement board, with roses running up a steel trellis. Across the lane, it’s met by a sister house in steel and concrete with a backyard canopied in grape vines.
This modernist and decidedly urban intervention in a neighbourhood full of suburban-style housing indicates a sea change afoot in Renfrew Heights. And indeed there is one, albeit with a distinctively Mediterranean air.
“I wanted to create a kind of urban village here,” says 37-year-old design-build architect Lucio Picciano, a second-generation Italian-Canadian whose parents hail from a town near Naples and occupy the corner house with the lavender garden. “I wanted to create a real sense of community, not just build the typical single-family home as a one-off – on a large lot and separated from neighbours by the standard 10-foot radius.” And so he has, with a middle-aged couple – composer David MacIntyre and his wife, fashion designer Catherine Lubinsky – occupying the neighbouring house, and Mr. Picciano and his girlfriend living in the house across the lane.
In this neighbourhood, with a diverse mix of Italian, Portuguese, Chinese and other ethnicities, Mr. Picciano also sought to challenge the stereotype of what constitutes “immigrant” housing. While the Special has been rediscovered by an enthusiastic generation of recent Canadians, new immigrants from Asia and Europe often have very modernist and sophisticated tastes, he says. “They have high design standards and demand a certain level of quality and craftsmanship,” he adds.
By choosing oddly shaped double-sized lots and subdividing them – the one shared by his parents and Mr. MacIntyre and Ms. Lubinsky is long and narrow, while the one he built his house on is a trapezoidal wedge-shaped intersection of two city grids – Mr. Picciano was able to keep costs down and create affordable and well-designed housing. In the process, he also created a rich weave of intergenerational, cross-cultural community.
“When we moved here,” Ms. Lubinsky says, “we didn’t just get a house, we got a whole family.” Sharing the lot with Filomena Picciano, a former tailor and avid gardener, and her husband, Amato, a plumber, has been “a great joy.” With tips from her neighbours, Ms. Lubinsky and her husband can now eat from their garden from May to September.
Since moving from their loft in Gastown, where noise and crime were becoming issues for the couple, and temporary digs in the West End, they’ve found their new neighbourhood to be a surprisingly good fit.
“We can get to theatres downtown faster now on the SkyTrain than when we lived in the West End and walked,” Ms. Lubinsky says. The 12-minute journey to downtown Vancouver means that car use is restricted to occasional supermarket excursions. Their garage has been converted into a spacious design studio.
Mr. Picciano made judicious use of the 1,710 square feet he had to work with, and carefully programmed the house as a place where two creative artists could live and work. As a result, Ms. Lubinsky no longer needs to rent office space, and Mr. MacIntyre works from the third-floor aerie where his grand piano competes only with the gorgeous mountain views.
The ground floor, which comprises a kitchen, living and dining area as well as a powder room, is at grade, and low-set picture windows let in light and surrounding greenery, amplifying space. The second floor, which Mr. Picciano likens to the Renaissance idea of a piano nobile where residents could enjoy privacy and views, contains the master bedroom and bath as well as two office/guest rooms. The master bedroom has southern exposure, which combined with the built-in HRV system, allows for maximum solar gain and lower heating bills.
“The great thing about this place,” says Mr. MacIntyre, (who has a keen interest in design and composed the music for the 1994 opera The Architect) “is that it’s like a loft with land.”
From their 400-square-foot roof deck, the couple can wave to Mr. Picciano and his girlfriend across the lane, where their house straddles a series of Specials to the east, and a row of nineties interpretations to the west. Its corrugated metal façade, angled roof and interplay between the rectilinear and the oblique give it the air of a lone modernist gunslinger. Yet its small footprint and traditional backyard vinery allow for a nice neighbourhood fit.
Across the lane at Amato and Filomena Picciano’s 1,800-square-foot house – with a kitchen as command centre at its narrowest western corner, a split-level living and dining area and a heat exhausting stairwell leading to upper floor bedrooms and the roof deck – Amato is making wine in the garage. Mr. Picciano mentions proudly that his girlfriend, Holly, has even learned how to squish the grapes between her toes.
But communities are harder to create than homemade wine, and Mr. Picciano says the neighbourhood needs more work. A lack of amenities such as grocery stores and cafés within walking distance make it less than truly urban.
“Seventy-nine per cent of land in Vancouver is still reserved for single-family homes,” Mr. Picciano says, “and that has to change.” While he acknowledges that his little neighbourhood intervention is but a small step in the right eco-density direction, “I like to know that the work I’m doing as an architect is about more than a nice design. I want it to make a difference in people’s lives.”
by Hadani Ditmars, photos the globe and mail
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