House Beautiful: A Di Castri-designed work of art in Gordon Head

Zigzag windows and diamond-shaped skylights, Japanese-style alcoves, inner courtyards, jutting rooflines and high ceilings are just some of the details that make Joan McNeely’s home in Gordon Head a work of art.

John Di Castri — who has been called a genius, a modernist maestro, a wizard and a giant among Victoria architects — built the distinctive 4,000-square-foot home with all his characteristic touches more than two decades ago.

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Although Di Castri — who died in 2005 — was nearing the end of his nearly 60-year career at the time of the McNeely project, his vision and attention to detail were as fresh as ever, says architect and urban planner Chris Gower, who greatly admired the man and has co-curated several exhibitions of Di Castri’s work.

“The quality, the refinements, how it fits the site, the detailing are all impressive,” said Gower. “Even this late in his career, Di Castri had lost none of his verve, skill or dedication. This house is a masterwork.”

Victoria-born Di Castri had trained in the provincial public works department before studying in the U.S. with expressionist architect Bruce Goff, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Returning to Victoria in 1951, he designed a seashell-shaped house on Ten Mile Point for a member of the Dunsmuir family and became an immediate celebrity, said Gower.

Besides dozens of homes, Di Castri’s creations in the capital region included the first Student Union and Cornett buildings at the University of Victoria, as well as the Interfaith Chapel there. He also designed St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s churches, the CNIB and Royal Trust buildings, the parkade on the north side of Centennial Square and the Crystal Pool.

“His office was extremely busy throughout his entire over-60-year career,” Gower said. “Every house was a one-off custom design.”

Considered a pioneer of modernist architecture here, Di Castri employed the concept of fractals, where many small parts of a house — geometric patterns and references— were repeated and integrated in different scales throughout the whole structure.

“All this complexity was orchestrated in response to a site, in terms of its form and intricacy,” said Gower, adding that it’s troubling when the value of Di Castri’s creations isn’t recognized. “If people aren’t informed about the quality and uniqueness of these homes, they may not choose to be guardians of them. So it’s important for us to help people become more aware.”

The McNeelys, longtime admirers of Di Castri’s work, commissioned their unique home to be built on a somewhat challenging, rocky half-acre waterfront site near Glencoe Cove.

Joan McNeely says her husband Michael, a pathologist and pioneer in technology solutions and informatics, had enjoyed working with Di Castri when he designed Island Medical Labs, now LifeLabs.

Besides being a national leader in laboratory medicine information systems, Michael McNeely had a diploma in fine arts, so the decision to hire Di Castri came naturally.

Originally, the home was designed to wrap around several large trees, but builder C & W Campbell estimated that would add $100,000 to the budget, with no guarantees of their survival. So the owners reluctantly let the trees go, but decided not to have the plans redrawn in a more conventional shape. Jonathan Craggs was hired to landscape the unusual site with inner courtyards and ponds, leaving a wild, steep slope down to the water.

Construction began in 1999.

The home is divided into two parts, a living-room wing and bedroom wing, with the steep bank sloping down to the beach on the bedroom side, and gardens weaving in and out all around.

McNeely and her husband, who had married while he was finishing medical school and she was doing her masters in social work at the University of Manitoba, wanted a West Coast home with all the living areas on the main floor.

She said Di Castri was a joy to be around and “sparkled” with enthusiasm and ideas when discussing their project. He used vast amounts of natural wood, stone, glass and slate on the main floor, along with high-quality white Berber carpet in the living and dining rooms.

Once the home was complete, the owners added everything from Andy Warhol pop art to polished tropical gourds and Inuit sculptures.

“My husband absolutely loved this house and at one point moved his office into the big room upstairs. He enjoyed it until he died in 2009.”

She initially thought of moving after his death, “but it was too beautiful to leave.”

“I love the wonderful light, the spectacular views, and it has never felt too big because of the way it was divided up, with so many cosy seating areas.”

Yet despite its snug appeal, Di Castri managed to imbue the house with a monumental feel, thanks to soaring ceilings, an open truss structure, exposed beams and circular staircase.

He also cleverly created suspense when it came to the views.

Di Castri disliked oceanfront homes where you walked in and immediately saw the water. “He liked a bit of mystery and said a house should reveal itself like a woman. Isn’t that lovely?” said McNeely.

And so in this home, it isn’t until a guest walks through the foyer, past an inner courtyard and a pond, then round another corner, that the view is suddenly visible in all its glory.

A keen supporter of Pacific Opera Victoria, McNeely has opened those views to opera gatherings and musical events, and invited Lafayette String Quartet students to live in her guest suite.

Di Castri’s widow, JoAnne, said her husband’s favourite thing was designing buildings for “impossible” properties, and he enjoyed this one because of its steep bank, rocky outcrops and challenging contours.

“He wanted to encompass the whole view, but never to expose it all at once. He wanted surprises everywhere.”

She added that Di Castri studied world religions and the lives of the mystics — and he believed that looking through even the smallest of spaces could open up the divine.

“I can’t wait to see what he’s doing on the other side.”

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