Winnipeg Whiteout (Dwell)

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, 24-year-old Sotirios Kotoulas designed a starkly modern house that makes John Pawson look like a maximalist.

Sotirios Kotoulas–like most artists and architects whose work begs for the term–hates to be called a minimalist. But looking at the house Sotirios designed for his family on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba, it’s a tough label to avoid. At 6,000 square feet, the Kotoulas residence a cavernous expanse of highly polished pure white marble, interrupted only by a couple pieces of furniture by Donald Judd, and a few of Sotirios’ own designs. Otherwise, all the typical household clutter–from the piano, to the spice rack, to his little brother’s Playstation–is hidden within the massive closets that comprise nearly every wall of the house, except those made of glass. But like most minimalists, the 24-year-old Cooper Union graduate insists that amid the rigid geometry and strictly unadorned surfaces there’s really quite a bit happening here: the camera obscura reflection of the woods outside, the play of shadows on the vast, empty floors, and the powerful psychological impact of a house with a fun-house sense of scale.

The Kotoulases take great pride in being the kind of family that would occupy a house that could be the love child of a Greek temple and a Miesian box. As Sotirios’s sister, Voula, 21, says, “There’s obviously some sort of challenge involved in living here. I don’t have my big fat La-Z-Boy couch to sit on.” Sotirios himself puts a slightly different spin on it. “There was a reason they made mental patients go into all white spaces,” he says with a chuckle.

When Sotirios was still in high school his family outgrew their turn-of-the-century house in downtown Winnipeg, and began looking for property on which to build. Building was the most natural thing to do. Sotirios’s father, Konstantine, who owns a large construction company, trained as a mason when he was growing up in Greece. The family hired a retired architecture professor who made the house his pet project. “It was his excitement,” Sotirios says. “Everyday he would sit on his porch and draft these things”–super-functionalist designs that sought the greatest possible efficiency in the life of their occupants, which was not what the family had in mind. “There was no way I wanted to live in that kind of a house,” says Sotirios’s mother, Chrysoula, in a rich Greek accent.

As active gallery-goers in Winnipeg’s thriving contemporary art scene, the family knew what it was like to have art “shake you up,” and they wanted the same from their house. But the architect’s plan wasn’t doing it. Sotirios said, “My mom would be the first one to start screaming, because it was boring. If it doesn’t excite you, why sweat over building?” At what would be their last meeting, the architect threw a pencil at the teenage Sotirios and said, “You do it.”

So Sotirios did. He sketched a rigidly geometric plan with 20-foot ceilings, hugely thick masonry walls, and a slender pool jutting out from the house like a diving board. “I was obsessed with keeping it extremely extremely extremely refined,” Sotirios says. “I had a vision for what this place should feel like, what I would feel in it, and how I would live in it.” Today, Sotirios’s speech overflows with architectural theory, picked up from any one of his professors–who included Peter Eisenman, Anthony Vidler, Raimund Abraham, Diane Lewis, and Lebbeus Woods–but, as he explains, “when I did this at 17 I didn’t have anything to reduce from. I just stopped early.” 

With Konstantine doing the construction work himself in his spare time or supervising one of his crews on the site, and with Sotirios working summers, the house grew slowly over four years. Nearly everything was custom built, from the bed Sotirios designed with his little brother, to the huge, rectilinear Vermont-slate bathtub. And while Konstantine toned down some of his son’s wilder ideas (like a 20-foot masonry wall towering in front of the entrance) other features of the house still carry the whiff of Sotirios’s teenage imaginings, including a narrow hidden staircase that rises directly to the roof, or the shower big enough for half a dozen people.   Even the way the house deals with a mess seems a teenager’s dream. As his younger brother Nicholas, 14, puts it, “it’s easy to keep my room nice and organized–you just stuff everything in the closet.”

All that absence does require some accommodations. In the frigid Winnipeg winters, when artic air generally brings the temperature well below zero and sucks every cloud from the sky, the uninterrupted white surfaces can create what Sotirios describes as a “whiteout”–”so we all just walk around the house with Ray-Bans on.”