The Hillborn House

My favourite building in the Region of Waterloo can be found hidden away on a quiet street, sitting atop a steeply sloping site, surrounded by trees, overlooking the Grand River in Preston. It is neither a vaulted hall of academic learning, nor a time capsule for our artistic heritage. It is not burdened with the task of resurrecting our downtown cores, nor with convincing taxpayers that their money was well spent. My favourite building serves a much humbler, but no less important purpose: as a house and home.

Designed by acclaimed Canadian Architect Arthur Erickson is 1974, Hillborn House is an example of a modern architecture that is sensitive to place and that takes its cues from the surrounding landscape. Where the threshold between interior and exterior space, between the built environment and the natural is blurred.

The Design of the house is simple in its conception: a series of monolithic masonry walls, set parallel to one another following the contours of the land. They seem to hold back the earth to create space and organize the programme into a series of terraces that step down towards the river. The space between the monoliths is filled with glass, framing views up and downstream to the river. The entrance and main circulation stair cut through the masonry walls, down the centre of the plan, with rooms and spaces organized to either side. As the stairs step down, the ceiling seems to heighten, amplifying the feeling of space as you move through the house. The masonry walls protrude up through the roof – the interior design articulated on the exterior – creating and enclosing exterior patios and gardens up on the roof. The material palette of stained wood and clay brick is of the land, reinforcing a connection to the site. When the sunlight hits these surfaces it fills the home with a warm, soft light.

The house is by no means a modest one, boasting an interior swimming pool and sauna, a space designed to house a baby grand piano, and an amazing soaker tub in the master ensuite. The tub is sunken into the bathroom floor so that you are looking out level with the forest floor. An incredible place to let one’s mind drift, lost in daydreams.

I was fortunate enough to have visited the house once, nearly11 years ago, when the Owner invited my first year architecture classmates and I over for a tour. So, maybe I am remembering the house though a nostalgic lense. Or perhaps it is more important that it has made such a lasting impression, or that I could see myself living there. I would love to see it again!

Guest Blogger Matthew Muller

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