It seems very fitting that Drew Mandel was in the process of designing a new house for his family when I finally caught up to him near the end of May. After all, it was the creation of his current abode (located at 83A Marlborough Avenue, on a lot only 13 feet wide), back when he was part of MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, that rocketed his career out of the old firm and into his own firm, Drew Mandel Architects.
"It garnered a lot of attention in the papers and magazines."
Mandel said of his the Marlborough house.
"And so I just started receiving phone calls. And the firm was a bit slow, and so it just seemed like a perfect time, with an opportunity for me. The firm was slow, and so could afford to have me go, so we parted ways. We're still friends, we're still in the same office building."
Even after ten years with his own firm — and who knows how many other projects? — that little sliver of a house on Marlborough Avenue is one of Mandel's favourites. Another favourite is known as "The Ravine House," (not to be confused with the "Cedarvale Ravine House," which Mandel also designed, and which won two awards from the Ontario Association of Architects in 2013). The Ravine House is featured in Atom Egoyan's 2009 film Chloe — a fact that seems, unsurprisingly, to please Mandel a great deal.
"It was a real ride"
he said of the movie-making and watching experience.
"I really enjoyed that. I think of Egoyan as almost a silent collaborator. It was very exciting to see someone with that kind of experience and vision do that in a building that I had designed so that it just brought other layers... he uses all this reflection, and it felt to me like he was exploring the things that we said and unsaid... How you really experience a place, with all those shadows, and materials. He just seemed to understand the house and it was really fun to watch a movie with that kind of other layer added on. And then we went and watched him shoot a few scenes, that was fun."
It's tempting to see this cinematic celebration of Mandel's work as symbolic of the shift that Toronto architecture has undergone since he started out.
"I think that Toronto has matured, and the market has matured, and we're going to see inventive, interesting, and strange architecture forever. And there's good and bad, don't get me wrong. There's terrible modern stuff, as much as there's terrible traditional stuff, but there's tons of work and tons of opportunity."
In Mandel's estimates, the last decade or so has seen an "explosion" of modern architecture, and he's probably better off because of it.
"In a way it's fine that there's more of it, it just raises the bar, just makes me want to do better and differentiate myself."
Fortunately for Mandel, he seems to have hit on a style of architecture that, in his words,
"just seems to resonate with people. We've had great feedback. People always say they want a 'home'. Modern is such a big word it's almost useless, but people - when they're doing a home - even if they have a very modern disposition or aesthetic, they still want it to feel like a home."
One way in which Mandel achieves this sought-after intimacy is by paying close attention both to his client's lives, and to the physical context of the building site.
"I think a true custom home really tries to celebrate the rituals of everyday life. And so you take a client - some are better, some are less so, at articulating what they want - you try to hear what they like to do every day."
"Sometimes you pull back just to let the site speak for itself, sometimes you frame views, sometimes make opportunities wherever you are - you enhance the existing site conditions, and celebrate those moments that the client has identified as important to them. Even if it's just brushing their teeth in the morning, you want them to have a great view, or some natural light. Or you want the moon to illuminate the house. Like, just make special moments, or make special places. That's what we try to do, in the end."
In the end, Mandel's creations are not only comfortably modern — they're also becoming more and more environmentally conscious as well.
"Every project we explore geothermal, solar, we always try to deal with natural ventilation, natural light, of course. And more and more clients are asking for that; asking for us to lead, or asking for us to make sure that we're doing the right thing in terms of sourcing the materials - local materials. It's always on our minds, and it's increasingly on the clients' minds."