Architecture Art & Design

Architect Stéphane Rasselet on Building Canada’s Modern Landscape

The founder of Canada’s _naturehumaine architecture practice builds bold residences, often with pops of color in surprising places, and says he takes a “humanistic approach” to his designs

Architect Stéphane Rasselet of Montréal-based firm _naturehumaine has worked his creative magic into everything from an abbey for monks to theaters, restaurants, museums, and homes, combining bold design with the day-to-day lifestyles of his clients. The company is behind some of Canada’s most impressive and impactful buildings. We spoke to Stéphane about his unique, spirited style of work.

You founded your studio in 2004. Why did you choose the name _naturehumaine?
It is essential for us that our potential clients know that we have a humanistic approach to design, and a strong desire to listen closely to their needs. We also liked the way the name sounds, and the evocation of a degree of sensitivity of our projects with respect to their surroundings, be they natural or urban.

Hallway with blue door
Architect Stéphane Rasselet of _naturehumaine incorporated vivid blue hues at the Bic Residence in Rimouski, Québec—pops of color are a signature throughout his work. Image: Adrien Williams. Banner image: Canari house in Montréal, Québec, Adrien Williams.

When did you realize you were interested in architecture and design?
I’ve been interested from a very young age—since my grandfather built the family cottage on Lake Champlain on North Hero Island in Vermont. I remember myself aged about six holding a small hammer in my hands while my grandfather and uncles were building the cottage.

Was it always your ambition to work in architecture and design?
The idea began getting stronger around the age of 14 when my family moved to Vancouver—my mother had talked a lot about going back to university to do a bachelor’s degree in architecture at the University of British Columbia. I also remember being very impressed visiting the Museum of Anthropology there, built by the Canadian architect Arthur Erickson.

I remember myself aged about six holding a small hammer in my hands while my grandfather and uncles were building the family cottage

What was your home like growing up?
I lived in different places around Canada while growing up, in various types of dwellings from traditional to contemporary. But the house that had the most influence on me was the cottage my grandfather built. It was very warm and built entirely of wood—floors, walls, and ceilings. What made it special was that it was a gathering place for the whole family.

How do you approach a commission?
We first meet potential clients at our office to make sure they understand our design approach. We also discuss the clients’ needs, look at construction budgets and determine if they are realistic. Once the important points are addressed, we proceed with an offer of services.

Résidence Courcelette in Montréal, Québec, is a 1940s house redesigned by the _naturehumaine team, who transformed the kitchen and dining room by opening the space up to the garden with an expansive sliding-glass window, allowing sunlight to stream in. Image: Adrien Williams.

Which of your projects are you most proud of?
It is difficult to answer that question knowing that each project we conceive has its own challenges and reasons for being. I am very proud of a project that ends with a happy client, as conceiving a house can be stressful. I also find it interesting to work on small houses where every square inch counts, and where we have better control on all aspects of the project.

We want our clients to feel that they are living in unique projects adapted to their specific needs and personalities, which do not compromise their wellbeing and comfort

How would you describe the _naturehumaine look?
We have a conceptual approach, where each project is unique because it is responding to different parameters. Overall we try to keep a very clear spatial organization and try to limit the choices of finishes and materials, emphasizing the use of natural wood and generous windows. We also like to add a touch of a specific color in a subtle way.

Tell us about the idea behind La Binocle…
This project was developed as a prototype for our client Mille Pieds Carrés. They wanted a series of cabins that could be modulated according to customer needs, for example the number of units on a site or their position in respect to the landscape. These cabins are intended to offer a unique living experience in a natural and remote context.

The Crowhill cabin, set on a mountain in Québec’s Eastern Townships and part of the Binocle project, offers one-of-a-kind living quarters in natural and secluded surroundings. Image: Adrien Williams.

And Canari house in Montréal?
This urban project transformed a fourplex into a family apartment connected to a bachelor unit. All the living spaces and bedrooms are located on the second floor, where the natural light is most prominent. A gym and an office are situated on the first floor with direct access to the garden. A central staircase, painted bright yellow, defines the concept. All other materials are subdued except for the three baths, which also feature bright colors on the walls and ceiling. Large panes of glass were installed in the living and dining room to maximize openness and the natural light on the façade, which was oriented to the north.

Canari house in Montréal, Québec, designed by Stéphane Rasselet of _naturehumaine, is defined by a bright yellow central staircase, contrasting with the subdued neutral colors used throughout the home. Image: Adrien Williams.

How do you want people to feel when they live in one of your homes?
We want our clients to feel that they are living in unique projects adapted to their specific needs and personalities, which do not compromise their wellbeing and comfort.

Tell us about your current projects…
We are currently working on a number of projects of different scale: two houses of approximately 9,687 square feet (900 sq m) in the Québec countryside, one in Mont-Tremblant and another on Lake Magog in the Eastern Townships, both on the water’s edge. And we are also working on multiunit housing projects ranging from two to eight units in the dense urban context of Montréal, as well as a transformation and conversion of two apartments dating from the early 1900s. For a seven-person office we are busy.

In what way is technology changing how you work?
We are increasingly dependent on computers for all aspects of our work. In the early years of the office I used to draw by hand on a drafting table. My drawing skills are now limited to freehand sketches that are passed on to the staff to put on the computer. It is the reality today that most young architects coming out of school draw very little by hand.

Stairwell surrounded by tall black railings
A bold black staircase at the heart of the minimalist Bessborough Residence in Montréal, Québec, is a dramatic focal point at the heart of this duplex conceived by _naturehumaine. Image: Adrien Williams.

You have an eclectic list of clients, from private individuals to Cistercian monks and funeral homes. What is your dream commission?
Having worked on urban funeral homes in the past year, I would like very much to design a columbarium [a room or building that stores funeral urns] set in a natural landscape.

How would you describe your personal style?
Spirited minimalism.

Modern house against a cloudy sky
The clean lines of the Bic Residence in Rimouski, Québec, were designed by architect Stéphane Rasselet of _naturehumaine to maximize natural light inside the house. Image: Adrien Williams.

What do you always carry with you?
A bag with a pocket-size measuring tape, a large lead pencil, a notebook, and a miniature imperial scale.

Finally, what does “home” mean to you?
A place to gather in harmony.