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House beautiful: All angles and shadows

Architect plays with the ebb and flow of natural light in his north-facing, two-storey waterfront home

A celebration of style on the home front

Writer Grania Litwin and photographer Frances Litman are known for their sense of style and knowledge of outstanding design. They tour homes around the south Island, talking to homeowners, interior designers, architects and artists who influence the way we live.

Fifty Shades of Grey may be the title of a blockbuster novel, but that number doesn't even begin to describe the palette of this house, which offers many more versions of the neutral hue, ranging from pale pearl to the skin of an elephant.

Walls, ceilings, skylights and more are all tinted dove grey. Porcelain floor tiles are deep pewter - either matte or polished to a high gloss - and silvery carpets are speckled with charcoal, as if an extravagant chef decided to spice them up with freshground pepper.

A large, L-shaped living room sofa glows like mother of pearl, while opposite is a freestanding fireplace the colour of dark ash.

Friends used to tease the owners about their muted mania, so one day, owner Buck Perrin decided to fight back. He painted the powder room a rich, dark "elephant" tone so he could rebut comments about the monotone zone. Though the colour was almost black, the small powder room is far from dark thanks to its 16-foot ceiling, topped by a skylight.

All this grey matter is constantly interacting with the light that plays off myriad ceiling angles, beams and crisscross rooflines. It pours through windows of all heights and ranks of skylights, and even streams from floor to floor like a waterfall.

"Natural light is the theme of this house," explained the architect who designed the Ten Mile Point showcase as a retirement home for himself and his wife, Donna.

The house takes advantage of light from every position of the sun, as well as reflections from the ocean."

As Buck swings wide the front door, it's immediately obvious why this house was chosen to be featured in the upcoming Art Gallery of Greater Victoria House Tour, set for Sept. 9. (See accompanying story at far left.)

The first thing a visitor sees is a large atrium that soars up to skylights, and also draws the eye to a lower level where a grand piano gleams in a pool of sun.

"This atrium is inspired by the Greek idea of a central court," explained Buck, who works professionally under the name H.A. Perrin. "In this case, it is a light well."

His 5,400-square-foot home's design is rooted in historical architecture. Its simple, modern lines have both a contemporary and classic feel, thanks to Buck's architecture training at the University of Manitoba and master's degree at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the legendary Lewis Kahn. The latter's monumental works were influenced by classical buildings in ancient Italy, Greece and Egypt.

Considered one of the 20th century's most influential architects, Kahn was an inspiration to Buck, who says he was also the century's greatest architectural educator.

"He believed in the art of building. Of course, building involves business and science and ethics and many other things - but its essence is art."

With Khan, he says, he learned about the "fallacy" of esthetic architecture, explaining it's why his designs aren't always immediately seen as beautiful. He compares them to a painting that gradually reveals itself, or a sculpture that a viewer comes to understand and appreciate over time.

He jokingly adds: "Some people think this house is strange at first, but then they come to see the sense of it all."

His mentor taught him that the most important thing to consider is space, "which is why we lived here a couple of years before we built. It took that long to be ready," he said.

When they first moved to Victoria from Manitoba, the Perrins lived in Broadmead, "but being Prairie people, we immediately started looking for waterfront," said Donna, a former social worker. Married 54 years, the couple have four children.

She recalled their realtor taking them to see properties that had recently been taken off the market. Renters living on the property they eventually bought had hidden the For Sale sign behind a tree.

"Whenever we tried to make an appointment to see the house it was never convenient, so one day we just came and walked the lot. The ocean was wild and angry and it was so exciting to be this close. We knew this was the spot for us," Donna said.

They bought the property in 1997 and lived in an existing cottage until they built a few years later.

Buck stressed that the north-facing aspect wasn't a concern.

"People often turn properties like this down, but we brought southern light in through clearstory windows and wide skylights." Some of them draw so much light, he later added fourinch louvers.

He also emphasized that it's not an expensive house. His mentor, Kahn, taught students that all materials have the same value - "It's the application that makes the difference."

"We used plain old drywall everywhere - but we did splurge on granite for the fireplace."

The dramatic, freestanding, sculptural piece divides living and dining spaces and is open on all four sides. Buck designed it so the switch that turns on the gas also opens the damper.

Its concrete structure is covered in granite and all the corners are double mitered, while above is a 12-inch diameter stainless steel chimney.

The Perrins also spent a little extra to insulate every wall in the house - "It's so inexpensive yet so valuable, because it gives substance to a house," said Buck - not to mention the sound-dampening effects.

Because the lot is narrow, and because they wanted an atrium, the building could only be three rooms wide, so it became immediately apparent they needed two storeys.

But a light well ensures the lower floor doesn't feel like a basement, and an added plus is the ability to walk out at ground level on three sides. The two levels are very different: the upper floor has a feeling of volume and geometry, with its crisscross rooflines, skylights and beams, while downstairs, the ceilings are standard height and the theme is stainless steel and concrete.

The lower floor is the recreation and entertainment hub of the house, with a large serving kitchen, play and hobby areas, fireplace and television area, as well as an office. It also has a self-contained in-law suite with two bedrooms, kitchen, laundry and bathroom.

A spacious workshop was originally designed as a boathouse, but the architect wryly calls it "Buck's folly," as the municipality did not allow him to build a ramp to the beach - after he blasted 17 feet out of the rock.

The home's kitchen and den are at the back of the house, but because there is no dining room wall, the views are excellent even from there.

Buck designed cabinets that appear to float, and instead of a kitchen nook, he created a long bluegrey counter for quick meals and buffet dinner parties.

He concedes it's not a highly efficient house, "but it's a pleasant walk around the atrium and down the four axes on each side of it, so we get lots of exercise."

It's the first house he has built for them, and he stresses that it's also the last: "We plan to be carried out in a box."

You can visit this house

What: Art Gallery of Greater Victoria House Tour

Where: Six Victoria homes

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 9

Tickets: $35 at the AGGV, Peninsula Gallery in Sidney and all Garden Works locations.

This year's gallery home tour highlights six outstanding residences and the same number of local artists, who will demonstrate their techniques on site.

Homes vary from West Coast contemporary architecture to historic classics, such as a Sam Maclure Swiss chalet-style home built in 1896.

"Choosing the houses is a huge part of the job, and every year is different," said co-chair Kinga Biro. "Last year, most of them were pretty modern, but this year we have a really interesting mix. And most are in the downtown area, with only one at Ten Mile Point, so there is not a lot of driving."

Participating artists include painter and Times Colonist art writer Robert Amos, Dorset NorwichYoung, Linny D. Vine, Jeffrey J. Boron and Elka Nowicka, as well as sculptor Iris Nardini. Homes will also feature flower arrangements created by the Victoria Flower Arrangers Guild.

The event will support exhibitions and programming at the gallery, said cochair Joan Huzar. "In each of the past four or five years, we have given the gallery about $40,000 - and most of it comes from this tour, which started in 1953 when the women's committee was first formed," she said.

"We always keep expenses to a minimum and people are wonderful about lending us their homes - of course, it is quite an honour to be chosen for the tour."

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