House Beautiful: A work of art designed by Di Castri in Gordon Head


Zigzag windows and diamond-shaped skylights, Japanese-style alcoves, courtyards, protruding roof lines, and high ceilings are just a few of the details that make Joan McNeely’s home in Gordon Head a work of art.

John Di Castri – who was described as a genius, modernist maestro, magician and giant among the architects of Victoria – built the characteristic 4,000 square meter house with all its characteristic details more than two decades ago.

Although Di Castri – who died in 2005 – was nearing the end of his nearly 60-year career at the time of the McNeely project, his vision and attention to detail were fresh as never before, says architect and city planner Chris Gower, who admired greatly the man and has curated several exhibitions of Di Castri’s work.

“The quality, the refinements, the fit and the detailing are impressive,” said Gower. “Even so late in his career, Di Castri had lost none of his enthusiasm, skill or commitment. This house is a masterpiece. “

Victoria-born Di Castri trained in the provincial public works department before studying with the expressionist architect Bruce Goff, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, in the United States.

When he returned to Victoria in 1951, he designed a shell-shaped house at Ten Mile Point for a member of the Dunsmuir family and became an instant celebrity, Gower said.

In addition to dozens of houses, Di Castri’s creations in the capital region included the first Student Union and Cornett buildings at the University of Victoria, as well as the interfaith chapel there. He also designed the churches of St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s, the CNIB and Royal Trust buildings, the parkade on the north side of Centennial Square, and the Crystal Pool.

“His office has been very busy throughout his sixty-plus year career,” said Gower. “Each house was a unique, individual design.”

Di Castri, considered here to be the pioneer of modernist architecture, used the concept of fractals, in which many small parts of a house – geometric patterns and references – were repeated and integrated at various scales throughout the structure.

“All of that complexity was staged in response to a website in terms of shape and complexity,” said Gower, adding that it is worrying when the value of Di Castri’s creations is not recognized. “If people are not informed about the quality and uniqueness of these homes, they may not choose to be the keepers of these homes. That is why it is important to us to help people become more aware. “

Long-time admirers of Di Castri’s work, the McNeelys had their unique home built on a somewhat challenging, rocky, half-acre waterfront property near Glencoe Cove.

Joan McNeely says her husband Michael, a pathologist and pioneer in technology solutions and computer science, enjoyed working with Di Castri when he designed Island Medical Labs, now LifeLabs.

Michael McNeely was not only a national leader in medical laboratory information systems, he also had a degree in fine arts. The decision to hire Di Castri was therefore a matter of course.

Originally, the house was designed to wrap around several large trees, but contractor C&W Campbell estimated that doing so would add $ 100,000 to the budget with no guarantee of survival. The owners reluctantly let go of the trees but decided not to redraw the plans in a more conventional form. Jonathan Craggs was commissioned to design the unusual place with courtyards and ponds and to leave a wild, steep slope down to the water.

Construction began in 1999.

The house is divided into two parts, a living room wing and a bedroom wing, with the steep bank on the bedroom side sloping down to the beach and the gardens going in and out all around.

McNeely and her husband, who had married while studying medicine and were doing their Masters in Social Work at the University of Manitoba, wanted a West Coast house with all living quarters on the first floor.

She said Di Castri was a pleasure to be here and “sparkled” with enthusiasm and ideas when they discussed her project. He used large amounts of natural wood, stone, glass and slate on the ground floor and high-quality white Berber carpets in the living and dining rooms.

Once the house was finished, the owners added everything from Andy Warhol Pop Art to polished tropical pumpkins and Inuit sculptures.

“My husband absolutely loved this house and at one point moved his office to the large room upstairs. He enjoyed it until he died in 2009. “

She initially considered moving after his death, “but it was too good to go.”

“I love the wonderful light, the spectacular view and it never felt too big because of the layout with so many cozy seating areas.”

Despite its cozy appearance, Di Castri managed to give the house a monumental flair thanks to the high ceilings, an open half-timbered structure, exposed beams and a spiral staircase.

He also skillfully created suspense when it came to the views.

Di Castri didn’t like houses by the sea where you went in and saw the water immediately. “He liked a bit of mystery and said a house should reveal itself like a woman. Isn’t that nice? “said McNeely.

And so in this house, when a guest walks through the foyer, past an inner courtyard and a pond and then around another corner, the view is suddenly visible in all its glory.

As an avid supporter of Pacific Opera Victoria, McNeely opened these views to opera gatherings and music events, and invited students from the Lafayette String Quartet to stay in their guest suite.

Di Castri’s widow, JoAnne, said her husband loved designing buildings for “impossible” real estate, and he enjoyed this because of its steep bank, rocky outcrops and challenging contours.

“He wanted to grasp the whole point of view, but never reveal everything at once. He wanted surprises everywhere. “

She added that Di Castri studied world religions and the lives of mystics – and he believed that looking through even the smallest of spaces could open up the divine.

“I can’t wait to see what he’s doing on the other side.”

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