A 1975 Home Gets Redesigned by Its Original Architect
Architect Rol Fieldwalker revisits the site of his groundbreaking Spiral House and begins anew.
It was almost perfect.
The vast wedge-shaped site on a rocky bluff, surrounded by dense cedar, fir and spruce trees and sitting 200 metres above sea level, was the kind of dream lot buyers look for in the mountainside village of Lions Bay, just north of West Vancouver.
Almost perfect, save for a neglected, once-beautiful home that had suffered decades of disrepair and neglect.
“It was in a terrible state,” says Barbara Maryniak, who purchased the site with her husband, George, in 2005. “The flat roof was leaking, and the house had been rotting for many, many years. It had the most awful smell. After visits, it was hard to get it out of our clothes.”
Through their realtor, the couple learned the house had been built in 1975 by a young architect named Rol Fieldwalker, and, a year later, it had been featured in the pages of this magazine. Called the Spiral House, its layout referenced the form of a chambered nautilus shell, with open, multi-purpose spaces that fanned out from a central chimney column. A series of sawtooth-shaped windows zigzagged across the front of the house, creating niches for lounging and view-gazing, while an abundance of wood, used in the ceiling, walls and several support posts and made from fir tree trunks with their bark still intact, created a kind of forest within: a literal tree house. Built in deliberate isolation, there was no electricity (the owners relied on kerosene lamps) and no driveway, only a meandering footpath from the street to the main entrance.
Now that vision of unencumbered ’70s living was all but lost under awkward modifications by subsequent owners, and, fatally, it was sliding down the rocky slope, its wraparound decks rotted through. It was past the point of saving.
In need of a site survey and a way forward, the couple reached out to Fieldwalker. Their initial meeting led to a long discussion about his design principles, West Coast architecture and, eventually, a commission for a second house. “I liked his philosophy around building houses,” says Barbara. “The idea of a house in and out of nature.”
Just as the first house curved around the front of the property, so would the second, using a portion of the original foundation to form the basis of the new swimming pool. Fieldwalker also returned to patterns found in nature, layering the eaves like the branches of the surrounding cedars. “The branches of the cedar have a very definite form in terms of how they slope down and have overlapping planes,” says Fieldwalker. “That idea for the roof was something that I thought would allow the house to blend in with its surroundings.”
Inside, the structure of the roof was left exposed, creating an elaborate, almost puzzle-box-like matrix of Douglas fir beams and rafters. “The craftsmanship of the wood was part of the design intent because the wood tells a story there,” says Fieldwalker. “I wanted you to feel, as soon as you came into the realm of the house, a very protective presence.”
The floor plan itself evolved carefully, if painstakingly, over two years, resulting in 5,500 square feet over four levels. On the main floor, the entryway opens into an interconnected dining room, kitchen and living room, with a private office and laundry area down a separate wing that leads to the garage. Up the central floating staircase is the master suite and the so-called “eagle’s nest”: a dedicated studio space for Barbara’s artwork and writing. Downstairs, a casual family room and three bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, accommodate enviable house guests. And from every room—save for perhaps one bathroom, notes George—sweeping views of Howe Sound: from Cypress Mountain in the far west to Anvil Island in the east, with Bowen and Gambier in between as sleeping giants in shades of dark blue.
Despite the home’s size, it is a calm and coherent space, owing to a limited palette of slate, fir and white walls. The couple enlisted their daughter, Emma Comesotti of Philosophy Design, to select interior finishes, millwork and furnishings that would work in harmony with the architecture. “There’s not a lot of colourful patterns or statement furniture,” says Comesotti. “We wanted pieces to be substantial, comfortable and of high quality, but we didn’t want them to clutter up the beautiful architecture or the view.” Ultimately, most of the major pieces were custom made, with the shades of grey found in the slate tile, the pool, the millwork and the upholstery carefully calibrated to mirror the layers of grey and blue seen off in the distance. With few exceptions, most notably a pair of custom dining tables by local maker Mitch Gwynne, wood was used sparsely so as not to detract from that remarkable ceiling.
Now retired, Fieldwalker considers the project a kind of “marker” to his 40-year career, the culmination of a long exploration of geometry, order and, ultimately, pattern recognition.
“For me, that’s a model for art, music and architecture. They all require time and space to work, but they create emotions by the way they come together…The final result is something else. It’s almost alive.”