City House in a Garden


Chicago, IL | McKay Landscape Architects | Client: Private


Chicago’s motto is ‘Urbs in Horto.’ Fittingly, the client wanted a City House in a Garden. This juxtaposition of urban and verdant instigated a larger study in contrast: public and private, inside and outside, formal and informal, polished and raw. The result is a home of copper, ipe and concrete knit into a lush landscape. Disparate spatial and material elements are harmonized while the inherent qualities of each element are amplified through the juxtaposition.


Located in the dense Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park, the client’s new construction single-family residence was designed with two goals in mind – to create a modern house for their young family of four and to establish an integral relationship between the inside and outside spaces.

The clients love the city and plan to raise their family in the heart of it. At the same time, they have a strong interest in plant life and the natural world and want their children to develop this interest. Thus, the design needed to embrace both of these passions – the city and the natural world – proving that these loves are not incompatible. In fact, when juxtaposed thoughtfully, each framing the other, the city and natural world are at their best.

Programmatic Requirements

The site is 50’x125’, twice as wide as the average city lot. Yet like many urban sites, the density of the neighborhood can be a challenge when creating a private outside space. The site is surrounded by towering residences and an elementary school and parking lot are located directly to the south. On the other hand, because the school parking lot creates a 75’ gap between the school building and the residence, the site receives an enviable amount of southern exposure on the longer side of the building - an unusual asset in the city.

The house covers 50% of the site, leaving 3600sf of outside space on the ground level for the clients’ programmatic requirements: a dining and entertainment space, a grilling area, and several areas for perennial gardening. A 1430sf green roof allows additional space for a desired vegetable gardening area. It also allows for views of the city skyline. Between the green roof, the ground level planting beds and gravel gardens, 53% of the total site is covered in permeable surface, reducing water run-off and mitigating the heat island effect, another programmatic goal of the landscape architect and the client.

The design addressed the clients’ needs and the site’s challenges through the development of four distinct landscapes: The Entry Garden, The Garden Walk, The West Garden, and The Rooftop Garden. Each garden has a different function and a unique character. What unites them are their diverse, rich palettes and their ability to hold their own, acting as a foil to an equally rich architectural palette.

The Entry Garden

In contrast to the neighboring residences, this project is unique in its embrace of the public way. There are no fences or gates mediating one’s approach to the house. The entry garden reaches out to the parkway, featuring Boulevard lindens underplanted with perennials and wild grasses - a riot of color and wildness more typically found in a private setting. It creates a visual juxtaposition with the modern materials of the house and provides a sensory experience for all who pass by.

While there is an air of openness at the parkway, the front entry was designed in a manner reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright. The entry is privately tucked away behind a raised garden planted with Royal Frost birches, rhododendron, and dwarf Japanese maples. A yew hedge to the south serves as a background for the Entry Garden and screens the parking lot and school to the south. Hydrangea climbs the building wall and Boston ivy covers the entry bench.

The Garden Walk

Along the southern edge of the house, positioned between a clean wall of glass and ipe and a 6 foot concrete wall, the Garden Walk links the very public parkway and the private West Garden. What is normally a secondary space used for transition is treated as a contemplative space with a distinctive character of its own. Large, rough, granite stones are embedded in pea gravel and interplanted with wild ginger, geranium, astilbe, epimedium, ferns, and brunnera. Trumpet vine and hydrangea climb the concrete wall, elegantly contrasting with the brutalist surface

Just south of the concrete wall, Triumph elm trees are planted in the school parking lot to create shade to the south face of the building and to mitigate solar gain in the summer. This area is bright and almost like a walking meditation garden, with the sounds of the city and the rustling of the Elms providing the sound track.

The West Garden

A Yin and Yang of walls at the edges of the property – a board formed concrete wall to the south and an ipe board fence to the west and north - allow much of the first floor to be enclosed in glass. It is as if the exterior walls of the house were moved to the property limits, and the outside space is an extension of the inside. This idea is reinforced by sliding doors and a continuous bluestone ground plane. At the same time, the walls provide a peaceful limit for the eye.

Nested within the walls, the West Garden features a bluestone surface for dining and entertaining. The garden is richly textured and layered with katsura, fernleaf beech, Japanese stewartia, mugo pine, quince, tiger eye sumac, perennials and ornamental grasses. The coarseness of the foliage contrasts with the orderly joint lines of the bluestone, and the crisp horizontal lines of the ipe walls.

A low concrete seat wall is integrated into the West Garden as a sculptural and interactive element to engage the children. They use it as a balance beam, a store counter, a reading nook, and a hiding place. Because the garden requires no chemicals to maintain it, the children are limited only by their imagination.

The Roof Garden

A vegetable garden and green roof are accessible from the second floor and visible from the street, again blurring the bounds of public and private, city and verdant, urban and rural. The path leading from the door to the vegetable planters is made of stepping stones embedded in gravel and interplanted with sedum and thyme, grounding this elevated space. This feeling is reinforced by the view of the intensive green roof planted with indian grass, little bluestem, side oats gramma, agastache, pale coneflower, and Summer Beauty allium, evoking native prairies endemic to the area. This rooftop oasis softens the modern façade of the building while mitigating the heat island effect, adding insulation to the space below, reducing roof runoff and attracting wildlife.

Each area - The Entry Garden, The Garden Walk, The West Garden, and The Rooftop Garden - has its own purpose and character. Yet they share a common purpose of providing a diverse, lively frame through which the family experiences their modern home. The family actively engages in the care of the gardens, enjoying the sensory experience it provides, the birds and butterflies the gardens attract, and the privacy it affords them - right in the heart of the city they love.

"To create a beautiful small urban garden may be one of the hardest challenges of a landscape architect and this project excels. It is beautifully crafted and detailed form the vines and ferns that merge with the cast concrete to the colors of the plants that highlight the furniture. The careful integration of diverse programs remains elegant and welcoming. The architecture and landscape extend one another through texture, color, and form, creating remarkable garden as a work of art and as a place of nature."

- 2014 Awards Jury



Lead Designer:
Michele McKay, ASLA

Wheeler Kearns Architects

General Contractor:
Norcon , Inc.

Landscape Contractor
Mariani Landscapes

Green Roof Contractor:
Intrinsic Landscaping, Inc.

Nels J. Johnson Tree Experts, Inc.

Masonry Contractor:
Lake Forest Masonry, Inc.

Irrigation Contractor:
Advanced Irrigation, Inc.


Birdseye Pea Gravel & Stepping Stones by Lurvey Landscape Supply
Glacier Blue Devonian Sandstone Bluestone by Devonian Stone of New York
Montego Collection furniture by Room and Board
Spark Chair by Knoll
Lighting by Teka Illumination and B-K Lighting
Gallery metal vegetable planter boxes by