Camera Lucida is a meticulous process involving the disassembly and subsequent reassembly of a Victorian semi in Toronto, which has stood for 150 years, with the intention of shedding a fresh perspective on its antiquated typology. The owenr approached Anya Moryoussef Architect (AMA) with a specific request: to encapsulate the narrative of their enduring residency. Having resided in this dwelling for a span exceeding thirty years, they had nurtured a family and executed numerous minor refurbishments.
Presently, the couple, both engaged in full-time remote work, sought to transform this towering, somber, draft-ridden, inward-oriented, multi-segmented Victorian abode into a domicile that would cater to their present and future needs. Concurrently, they expressed a desire to retain the essence of its Victorian heritage. Recognizing the inherent contradiction, AMA confronted the challenge of seamlessly integrating contemporary lifestyles, both technically and functionally, within the framework of a predominantly unaltered Victorian structure.
The existing house was striking, proud, rich in detail, and layered with decades of memories, but at the same time narrow, imposing, cold, and proscriptive – a house the clients loved, but one that was not always comfortable. The challenge was to fundamentally alter their day-to-day experience of the home with as light a touch as possible: unraveling, uncovering, retaining, restoring, re-envisioning, and re-inventing, rather than starting anew.
Instead of the tabula rasa approach, which is so commonly seen in renovations and energy retrofits of this type, and which is very waste and material intensive, AMA deployed the more empathetic strategy of uncovering and re-envisioning the house through careful observation, investigation, and, eventually, a series of strategic interventions.
This involved a truly collaborative effort with the contractor, who methodically ‘un-built’ the home’s interior, stripping it down to its studs. Existing features – some recovered, some uncovered – were retained and salvaged, including stairs, trims and moldings, hardware, doors, and fireplaces. The envelope and mechanical systems were significantly upgraded for greater comfort and energy efficiency, including new aluminum-clad wood windows in place of the original single pane, double hung ones, and radiant in-floor heating in place of the original, space-consuming cast iron radiators.
The project’s principal intervention followed, which was to open the house by creating a new set of spatial relationships mapped onto existing ones through the insertion of seven new apertures – some punctures, some mirrors. These interventions, strategically situated on the axis with existing doors and windows, bounce light and views around the home, breaking down its strict Victorian edges and illuminating its darker recesses. It is from these interventions that the name ‘Camera Lucida’ is derived, which refers to the optical device that artists used to accurately reproduce reality on a two-dimensional surface using reflected rays of light.
While the house was revived by these reflections and illuminations, its proportion, order, structure, and circulation – a shifted enfilade and central staircase, for example – were maintained, though expressed through different materials. New white-washed pine flooring, planed from century-old logs salvaged from the bottom of the Ottawa River, is juxtaposed against iridescent, kiln-fired manganese brick tiles to mark the movement from light to shadow to light across the length of the house. The main entry staircase, with a sturdy new balustrade, is set in a shock of cornflower blue. The kitchen, the most functionally demanding of environments, is constructed of nanotech surfaces and brushed stainless steel.
The result is neither old nor new, but rather a blurring of the two – the retained historic elements puzzled together between the modern interventions: an original molding peeking through an unexpected incision, or caught in reflection, has the effect of at once preserving and dismantling the elements of what was once a familiar Victorian. The colours and materials are redolent of a Victorian home, but have been renewed by contemporary building technology. New light plays with redolent shadows – all re-framing the inhabitants’ experience of their home in a way that is both inherently familiar, yet simultaneously unexpected.