Many passersby don't know what to make of the tall, skinny, multi-coloured building on stilts at 157 Coxwell Avenue—but for Benjamin Walsh and Darren Berberick, it's home.
We Live Here unlocks the stories behind some of Toronto’s most unique, quirky, and all-out weird homes, the people who live in them, and the people who live with them.
When Darren Berberick decided to rent a new home with his partner, Benjamin Walsh, he sent a link to his father. The response wasn’t exactly congratulatory.
“What the hell am I looking at?” his dad asked.
For any other house, this might be an unexpected reaction. But for the building at 157 Coxwell Avenue, well, even Berberick thought the same thing the first time he saw it.
“I remember the first time we saw it.” They were riding their bikes to the movie store, Walsh interjects. “Months before we even thought about living here, we rode past it and, like a lot of other people who see it, we thought ‘What is that place?’ ‘What does it look like inside?’ ‘Do people live there?’” Berberick explains, leisurely sitting on the hardwood of the third-floor living room, inside the very house that piqued his curiosity more than one year ago.
“My first instinct wasn’t ‘oh my God, I want to live there.’ It was just ‘oh my God,’” says Walsh. “It was clear that the architect was doing something interesting, something outside of what was standard practice, and that was an immediate draw.”
The tall, thin structure in bold primary colour blocks, set on top of four stilts, connected to the Coxwell sidewalk by a 35-foot-long bridge, can bring a variety of inspirations to mind—a LEGO creation, a water vessel, a spaceship, a Rubik’s cube, an inhabitable version of Marge Simpson’s hair, etc, etc… But standing confidently on the fairly nondescript, busy street on the edge of the Indian Bazarre in Toronto’s east end, it’s safe to say that whatever it is, it’s something.
“I think there’s something about it—the colours, the shape… There are a lot of questions you come up with,” says Berberick, who first heard the home was up for rent last September from his friend who lives next door. “I made an appointment to view it, just to look inside more than anything. I assumed we couldn’t afford it.” But that viewing led to a hours-long conversation with the building’s architect and owner, Rohan Walters, during which they decided the home was a perfect fit for Berberick and Walsh, who celebrated their first anniversary living at 157 Coxwell this month.
Walters himself says that when he interviews potential tenants, he looks for the same qualities that any landlord would—responsible, respectful, employed, and so on. But Berberick and Walsh say they feel an unusual sense of obligation to treat their home—Walters’ “baby”—with special care. The home at 157 Coxwell reflects Walters’ ambition to introduce alternative architectural solutions to “problematic” properties, much like his own home at 1292 College Street. This lot in particular wasn’t only awkward in size, about 23 feet wide and over 130 feet long, but 20 inches of topsoil (reminders of a time when Lake Ontario covered the land) made it unsuitable for any foundation. But by using stilts that extend 48 feet into the earth, he not only gave the house stability but also a handy parking spot underneath the main floor.
The house is also an example of affordable, eco-friendly architecture, with the design acting like a giant chimney with circulating air to cool it in the summer, and radiant heating in the concrete floors. The whole building cost about $95 per square foot.
As for the bold exterior in blue, red, yellow, and green plywood panels, Walters found his inspiration while at the AGO, looking at Group of Seven paintings.
“In this particular neighbourhood, the confluence of culture and economics gave me the opportunity to be unique. I wanted to introduce into Toronto the notion of colour,” he says. “In our Ontario native landscape, we have colours that were overlooked by many of the European heritage builders. I wanted to reintroduce them on a larger palate, to see if it worked. Somehow it does. When you visit [the house] in sunrise and sunset, and the leaves are changing and falling, it works.”
The house’s connection to nature isn’t immediate, but for Berberick and Walsh, nature has become a kind of roommate for them (and they aren’t only referring to the family of squirrels that have taken root underneath among the stilts). Each of their favourite spots in the home (a reading corner for Walsh, the bathtub for Berberick) just happen to be beside large windows that look out onto the treetops next to the house. The rooftop patio also boasts a view of the lake on a clear day. Exposed beams and wooden trims bring in more natural influences. And the house even seems to respond directly to the weather, with wind audibly whizzing through the windows and causing it to sway back and forth.
“When you’re inside, nature never seems that far away. At night, you really feel like you’re at a cottage,” Walsh says.
Berberick and Walsh describe the one-room-per-floor interior as “a blank slate,” as no room except for the bathroom has any defining feature. Though Walters had a particular layout in mind (to have a reception area on the ground floor, a kitchen on the second floor, and a master bedroom on the third, leading up to the rooftop patio), Berberick and Walsh configured the spaces to suit their needs and decor, with the kitchen and dining area on the bottom and the living room at the top, furnished with a variety of ecclectic pieces and knick-knacks including souvenirs from India, garage sale finds, and antiques inherited from their grandparents.
“For us it’s perfect. It seemed like the stuff we have accumulated over the last few years; it feels like it was meant to be in this house,” says Walsh.
“I expected it to be a little more ultra-modern inside,” says their neighbour, who wishes to remain anonymous. “That’s what’s great about the house, the mystery of it.”
He moved onto the block two years ago and says the home was more attractive to him because of its odd neighbour. Like Berberick, Walsh, and about four to five passersby he sees staring at the house agog every day, the house always raises questions in his mind.
“You certainly come away asking ‘What is typical?’ ‘Is that all there is?’ The answer’s no, homes don’t all have to be built the same way,” he says, comparing it to a more conventional home that was recently built further south on Coxwell. “What would I rather have? I’d rather have the multi-coloured cube house. I wake up and I have something to inspire me, to shake the tree of creativity.”
He’s not the only neighbour to be enthralled by the house. Berberick and Walsh often overhear shocked reactions from viewers outside, receive requests to see inside, and once even had a couple of canvassers stroll up and down the street over and over until they saw someone was home before knocking on their door. Not that they mind. When they first moved in, their home was an icebreaker when meeting their neighbours. In fact, it still comes up regularly, and early, in conversation.
“People introduce us like ‘This is Darren. You know that weird house on Coxwell? That’s where he lives.’ Instead of ‘This is Darren, and he’s really intelligent and attractive,’” Berberick jokes. “But a month will go by and no one will ask you about it or talk about, and it becomes your normal. You come home and you walk along the bridge, and at night you’re walking around and the house is shaking, and you don’t think about it. And then you open the door to leave in the morning and there are four people standing there staring at your house, and you think, ‘Oh right, there’s something interesting happening here.’”
Both Berberick and Walsh are the first to admit it’s not for everyone—it moves, it has virtually no space for storage or guests, the bathroom has a very large window, its energy-efficient lights sometimes flicker annoyingly, and Berberick personally thinks the multiple flights of stairs are his nemeses. They’re still “working out their relationship with stuff,” with many boxes still unpacked solely due to the lack of closets, and they have yet to decided what to do with the rooftop patio and backyard. There are still many mysteries within their home even after a year of living at 157 Coxwell, but Berberick finds himself asking one question in particular.
“This is the only house we’ve ever lived in where often we just randomly say, ‘Can you believe we live here?’”
The anonymous neighbour asked that we remove his street address, which originally appeared in this article, for privacy reasons.