Motioning at a trio of nearly lifesize sculptures of men with their arms thrust forward, Vincent James talks about “collaborating with the artwork” in his design of a large penthouse apartment populated by an impressive collection of contemporary Asian art. Works by artists such as Yue Minjun (who sculpted the three men), Zhu Wei, and Anish Kapoor animate the apartment's fluid spaces. The actual clients for the project, though, didn't want it to feel like a museum. So James, whose practice, VJAA, was named Firm of the Year by the AIA in 2012, used materials, daylight, and elegant screens to blur spatial boundaries and soften the notion that this might be a place more for culture than living.
The clients were attracted to James by his frequent use of natural materials, especially wood. Thorough in their research, they interviewed a number of talented, but low-profile, architects for the job. They asked all to list five other architects they might hire to do their own house. The only name to appear on everyone's list was Vincent James.
His first challenge with the urban penthouse was wrestling with its size—all 5,500 square feet are on one floor. To bring daylight deep inside and prevent any areas from seeming dark, James kept the floor-to-ceiling-glazed perimeter on two sides free of partitions. The strategy allowed the kitchen, dining room, living room, and office to enjoy big views of Lake Michigan and the city to the east and south, while placing bedrooms in a more private realm on the north side.
The plan combines the openness of a loft with a layering of spaces that provides definition to different functions without resorting to very many walls. Instead, it employs perforated metal partitions that allow light to pass through and allude to shoji and other kinds of Asian screens. The size of the holes in the anodized-aluminum partitions varies, creating a subtle ripple pattern that adds a touch of movement to the design. James also applied the traditional Asian concept of a courtyard house to the floor plan, organizing rooms around a central “open” space where people enter from the elevator lobby. Such an approach raises intriguing questions of place and cultural connection.
To add warmth to the large apartment, the architect used narrow strips of walnut for flooring in all the public spaces and on ceilings in a few places such as the living room, dining room, and kitchen. When used on the ceiling, the wood forms latticelike screens that hide acoustical material, lights, and sprinklers. The wood ceilings, which are raised more than 2 feet above the others, also help define the areas they cover by creating visual contrasts to the neutral palette of colors in the rest of the project. White and off-white paint, along with reflective surfaces on kitchen cabinets and other elements, keep the apartment bright and provide a calm, modern backdrop for the art.
Although James did not know exactly which pieces from the clients' art collection would end up in the apartment, he understood the nature of the work and created an environment that would complement it. That meant establishing a dialogue between architecture and art in which scale, procession, and views from one space to another serve as key topics. Working with the clients after construction was done, James mounted paintings and placed sculptures to pull people through and around the public spaces, using the profile of a burly man sculpted by Zhu Wei, for instance, to grab your eye and entice you to keep exploring. And a set of vertical paintings in the dining room makes that space feel lively even when no one is there. Works that are sensitive to daylight are hung on walls set back from the glazed perimeter on the south and east.
The clients said they wanted a home that had a sense of repose. In Kyoto they had visited the Katsura Imperial Villa and loved the way it unfolds as a sequence of layered spaces and uses repetition and asymmetry as essential elements. Although surrounded by sky, rather than 17th-century gardens, their urban penthouse borrows some of the Japanese palace's design strategies and its quest to remove its privileged denizens from the messiness beyond its walls. Its porous spaces flowing into one another and its simple detailing instill a sense of gracefulness but also one of separation.
Set on the top floor of a tower, the apartment resides in a safe and abstract realm with little connection to the particular city hundreds of feet below. While this frees the architecture from the constraints of an urban context and allows it to reference Asian design without seeming clichéd, it also strips away the idiosyncrasies of place—those odd or unique characteristics that help us identify with a town and call it ours. This apartment could be anywhere, or at least in any big city with tall buildings and a large body of water. As lovely and elegant as it is, and as rich as it may be in artworks, there seems to be something missing here. Floating above it all, it has everything except roots to a larger place that one might call home.
Gross Square Footage: 5,500 sq. ft.
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Mechanical engineer: WMA Consulting Engineers, Ltd.
Electrical engineer: WMA Consulting Engineers, Ltd.
General contractor: Bovis Lend Lease, Inc.
Photographer(s): Paul Crosby
Millwork: Bernhard Woodwork, Ltd.
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