Vancouver-based architect Omer Arbel doesn’t set out to design living spaces that are merely beautiful and functional. For him, success depends on taking things to the next level – an exercise in architectural poetics. In order for a space to flow, he believes, a sensitive arrangement of existing elements and bold new textures must interplay. In this 33-by-150-foot loft, the end result of his theory is pure delight – a deliberate placement of rough and smooth, rustic and sparkle, perfectly punctuated by a central shaft of open sky.
The project consisted of a seismic upgrade and restoration of a heritage building in Vancouver’s historic gastown district, and a warehouse loft interior design project. The loft is organized around a new courtyard open to above, inserted into the heritage fabric of the building, allowing light into the centre of the very deep plan. All other interior elements are rendered crisply using precisely machined elements, conceived to stand in strong contrast to the rough heritage fabric of the existing shell
The owner is a bachelor who became deeply invested in Gastown before its rundown warehouse spaces became fashionable. (Indeed, his various business ventures there have helped spur the area’s revival.) So, when he approached designer Omer Arbel, then working at Peter Busby’s offices, he asked for a home that would “just let the space be itself.”
The space, though, had been practically abandoned, used as rough storage for an appliance vendor. Arbel was handed a mess of clumsy interior walls and years of spider webs. His task: preserve the history that lurked there, all while overlaying it with a real, functional living space.
The first myth of Gastown living—that one must sacrifice fresh air and greenery for the rush of city life—was dispelled in short order. Arbel knew that neither Water Street nor Blood Alley was going to offer lush vistas, so he created, at the heart of this loft, a walled courtyard that only looked up to the sky. Light and breezes spill through its open top into the home and, when three of the courtyard’s walls roll away, one might easily stroll from room to room via a happy cube of garden.
“Everywhere,” says Arbel, “we were really just dropping these objects, these boxes, into the larger plan.” Against a surround of vintage brick, for example, the kitchen’s crisp white millwork hovers, with space above and below to emphasize the box-within-a-box effect. One is constantly aware, here, of contemporary design as a sort of complement to (rather than an abolisher of) the original warehouse.
Look up and you’ll see a network of original Douglas fir beams, lit up to dramatic effect by a set of skylights. There’s a five-foot volume between the beams and the building’s actual ceiling—another clearly defined envelope.
Ultimately, though, Arbel’s loft does what a great loft ought to: it gets out of the way. “You want to revel in an open floor plan like this,” he says. “Part of the promise of living in a loft is the way nothing’s fixed.” There are no walls to break off the living space, kitchen or dining area, save for a couple of paper “soft walls” by Molo, which accordion, shift or disappear depending on that day’s whims.
Arbel can create structure when it’s called for; he’s justly happy with the bathroom, where a vanity area, a tiled shower and a halo of light at the shower’s rear make up a set of three nesting boxes. But mostly this is a home where the owner’s superlative (and eclectic) collection of furnishings can take centre stage. Baroque chandeliers and Parisian café chairs share the space with Buddhas and Japanese wind socks.
The massive dining table is a replica of one at nearby hot spot Salt Tasting Room restaurant. A modern abstract painting by Charles Forsberg and a stunning chandelier enhance the scale and conversation.
Large hanging fish kites catch the light in the living room. Architect Omer Arbel’s tips for how to introduce modern elements to an existing space ripe with character:
The primary goal was obvious — add light and make it inviting — but far from simple. “This was a cavernous space in a not-so-pretty neighbourhood,” Omer says. “We decided to concentrate on light and create a sort of cube of nature in the middle of the floor plan rather than open up the views to the streetscape.” The streamlined custom-design kitchen faces the chic courtyard.
Partly inspired by the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán, the courtyard is a “window to the sky.”
“The master bath is a glass box, in the same language as the courtyard,” says Omer. A sliver-like opening to the sky allows for a wonderful wash of light over the shower.
Rather than drawing from the existing monochrome bricks ’n’ sticks palette, brightly coloured mosaic tiles in purple, blue and white add a pop of colour.
An inexpensive IKEA bed and funky artwork blend seamlessly into the functional space. Those walls, original to the loft, were left deliberately raw. “We sandblasted the bricks but kept them rough,” says Omer.