Now and Zen

Perched on top of Chicago's arresting Contemporaine building, this penthouse's Japanese garden offers peace and tranquility amidst a thriving urban jungle
An exterior vie wof the home, large glass architecture, building, facade, home, house, real estate, reflection, residential area, sky, window, black
An exterior vie wof the home, large glass walls, concrete tiled pathway, glass railing, plants.

The city is a bustling, exciting place to be, with new sights and experiences at every turn. However, urban living can also bring daily pressures and worries so what better way to unwind than stepping into the serenity of your very own rooftop Japanese garden.

This was the aim of Jon Butcher, owner of a penthouse apartment on the 14th floor of Contemporaine, an ultramodern concrete, glass and steel structure in downtown Chicago.

The award-winning building, created by Ralph Johnson, principal of architectural firm Perkins + Will, comprises an 11-story condominium tower atop a four-story base of retail and parking.

Contemporaine's strong profile, defined by a concrete canopy and projecting penthouse, establishes the building as a piece of Chicagoan skyline sculpture.

Butcher's apartment at the top of the building has 3000sq ft of interior space balanced by 3000sq ft of rooftop exteriors.

"Walking out onto this expanse for the first time, I envisaged it transformed into an authentic Japanese garden," he says.

Butcher's vision stretched to a mature garden complete with an ornamental pond, a waterfall, substantial boulders, 12 mature pines and unpolished slate underfoot. The garden was to be split between the 1500sq ft south-facing terrace and a separate 1000sq ft east-facing terrace. The balance of the exterior square footage is made up of a dramatic walkway running along the side of the penthouse.

"Given the sky-high location and its proposed environment of boulders, water and 1200lb trees, issues of weight had to be addressed," Butcher says. "To this end, my Japanese gardener, Hoichi Kurisu, designed faux boulders from concrete and stone. I hadn't liked the concept originally, but the authentic look of Kurisu's boulders and their considerable weight difference from real boulders won the day."

The large ornamental pond also looks a weighty feature, but in reality is only a few inches deep its serene aspect belying the masterful behind-the-scenes irrigation required to maintain it.

"Basically, the irrigated garden, waterfall and pool all have to work within the constraints of the building's existing roof drainage system," says Butcher. "Kurisu designed a shallow aluminum pan to house the pool. Edged with stone and floored with black gravel, its inky reflective surface implies greater depths."

A view of the dining room, wooden flooring, ceiling, countertop, dining room, floor, flooring, interior design, kitchen, living room, room, gray
A view of the dining room, wooden flooring, dining suite and cabinetry, many accessories, rug.

In terms of the garden's irrigation, a large catchment membrane runs underneath the entire garden on both terraces.

The garden's mature pine trees can be seen from the street below, making for a sight as arresting as the building itself.

"The trees were craned up and dropped straight into prepared beds," he says. "They have a bonsai quality to them, having been trained and manicured by Kurisu for a staggering 35 years.

"Given Chicago's climactic extremes, heated underfloor pads help keep the trees healthy during the winter months."

While winter renders the rooftop largely a visual feature, through the rest of the year it is used as an outdoor living space.

"As well as the garden itself, I had four other needs for the apartment's gigantic exteriors: a sun deck, which is situated on the east terrace; a dining setting, situated on the larger south deck; an open air living room, also on the south deck; and along from this, an outdoor office."

These disparate spaces are separated by planters and water features, with furniture finished in all-weather materials.

The transition between indoors and outdoors is almost seamless, and this is partly due to the one significant alteration that Butcher made to the interior.

"I dislike hallways employed purely as a functional transition; they just take up space. If a hall is necessary, it should also fulfill an aesthetic function. Originally, the apartment had a hall running right though its center, with rooms such as guest bedrooms pushed out to the glass," says Butcher. "By moving the hallway hard up to the north side of the apartment, both occupants and visitors experience the full effect of a 100ft run of floor-to-ceiling glazing, looking out through water and trees to a breathtaking skyline."

To further this effect, the line between indoors and out is blurred. Unpolished slate surfaces outside are continued inside, as are some flora elements. The trickiest connection is a faux boulder that appears to reach right through the glass. In reality, it is cut in half, with one half positioned outside and the other half realigned with it from inside.

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A view of a hallway, stone flooring, glass front door, wooden walls.

"Visitors step from the elevator straight out to this view," he says. "The effect sets the scene for the equally dramatic views from the apartment's living spaces."

Beyond the hall, on the east corner of the apartment, the open-plan living area, opens up to a 24ft high wall of glass.

"The Japanese aesthetic predominates right through the interior as well," says Butcher. "For example, floor-to-ceiling Japanese shoji screens slide back on heavy duty gliding mechanisms to divide or combine entire rooms."

These were the concept of Butcher's interior designer, Richar.

"Much of the apartment's low slung furniture, another Japanese design conceit, was originally designed by French furniture designer Christian Liaigre," says Butcher. "Richar looked at his work, displayed in Chicago by Holly Hunt, and ordered customized variations appropriate to the apartment."

With the apartment built in steel, glass, and concrete, there could be a tendency for the interior to have a cold atmosphere.

"We took pains to avoid this feel wanting instead to marry the cool, angular space with softer touches. The flowing lines of falling drapes soften the strongly linear nature of the window frames in the living room, for example."

Throughout the interior, soft is juxtaposed with hard, and warm sits alongside cool. Again, this can be seen in the central living space, with dark bronze stools sitting alongside a delicate chenille-covered lounge suite.

No expense or design detail has been spared in this upmarket penthouse. Most senses are catered to from the sound of the trickling waterfall outside, to the views, to the soft touch of chenille, and even to the sense of smell.

"The apartment is electronically savvy shades, lights, music, video, security, the waterfall, and even aromas all operate at the push of a button," says Butcher. "The aromas range from light woodland smells for during the day, to muskier scents for the cocktail hour."

Nov 17, 2005

Credit list

Interior designer
Richar Interiors
CMK Development
Garden designer
Hoichi Kurisu
Kitchen manufacturer
Christian Liaigre
Bathroom vanity
Nu Trends
Shower stall
Jon Butcher
Principal contractor
Lochert Company
Lighting designer
Bruce Yarnell
Custom Christian Liaigre from Holly Hunt
Home automation
Media Tech
Faucets and shower fittings
Fantasy Brown
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