Floor Plan:  © Wilkinson Blender Architecture
architect's drawing of terraced back yard
Situated at basement level, where Giacomo has his office and music studio, the yard is designed to integrate with the overall plan of the house. The bridge and a spiral staircase connect the living room with the lower level.

Here is a garden that sinks to new heights. For their custom-built home in Old Town, Giacomo and Kristyn Caliendo wanted a back yard that functioned as both a private retreat and a comfortable space for entertaining. Where some designers might have installed a conventional porch, patio, or perennial garden, the Caliendos’ architect, Richard Blender of Wilkinson Blender Architecture, came up with a truly dramatic plan.

After excavating the yard to the depth of the basement, Blender designed a series of terraces that step back up to ground level to create a mini-amphitheatre, an ideal spot for guests to enjoy impromptu musical performances by Giacomo, an accomplished amateur guitarist and keyboard player. As the plants in the beds on each level mature, a wall of greenery will rise with the terraces, simultaneously enlarging and enclosing the space.

Add to that the tranquil effects of the big black beach stones rimming the deck and a trickling fountain-not to mention the complete absence of a lawn to obsess about-and this small plot reveals itself as a quintessentially contemporary urban garden. It suits and enhances a tight city lot, blurring the line between indoors and out. It is as forward-looking as the house itself.

terraced back yard in chicago

The design of the yard is integrated with the overall plan of the house, which presented its own logistical challenges. The lack of an alley meant the garage had to be in front; to mitigate the effect on the aesthetics of a very pretty block, Blender tucked the garage door half a story below street level and under a balcony.

That meant that the main living floor would be half a story above the ground. Rather than stick a deck that would loom over the back yard off the rear of the house, Blender opted to sink the yard to the level of the basement, which houses Giacomo’s office and music studio. And from that, the terrace concept fell into place.

A long, cantilevered bridge from the main floor of the house brings people out from the living room for a dramatic view of the terraces below. The bridge’s flooring and the main decking, made of the same Doug- las fir as the floors inside the house, make for an almost seamless transition between house and garden.

"I wanted it to feel like another room of the house," Giacomo says of the yard. A Chicago homebuilder himself, he and Kristyn moved into the house in late 2004. While he builds mostly traditional styles for his clients, for their own home the couple went with a contemporary look that combines outsized aluminum frames around windows and balconies, polished gray masonry and limestone paneling outside, and sleek, spare spaces inside.

As you step outside, only the greenery tells you that you’ve moved into a different part of the home.

There aren’t many plants, but they pack a punch. Simplicity was a decided preference: Although the Caliendos love plants and gardening, they opted not to go the route of many city gardeners, stuffing as much as possible into their tiny allotment of ground.

Rather, restraint was their guide. "We wanted sort of a Zen, Asian look, to give it a feeling of peacefulness," Giacomo says. The beauty of Japanese gardens is that they create a microcosm within a small space. The traditional elements of rocks, plants, and water are here, along with orderly runs of concrete, which help situate this world within a city.

Repeated horizontal lines in the decking and terraces, the rear wood screen, the fencing, and even the ribs on the large planting urns contribute to the garden’s serenity. In a city neighborhood where the houses are slim and vertical, the horizontality provides a respite from all that climbing. It also "makes the yard feel wider than it is," Giacomo says. "It’s like a skinny person wearing horizontal stripes; it gives you a larger look." 

terraced back yard in chicago
Blurring the line between indoors and out, the Caliendos’ sunken yard creates an inviting enclosure for anything from a BBQ to a mini-concert by the musically gifted Giacomo. A long, cantilevered bridge situated at the main floor level of the house allows for a gorgeous descent into the yard, not to mention an arresting view from above.

Because they are so few, the plants chosen for the eight planters in the terraces have to make an impact. Boxwoods were selected because they remain green year-round and, as they mature, will make a tidy hedge that complements the blocky terraces. Ornamental grasses-during this, their second summer, the Caliendos were still trying to determine which types work best-were chosen for their upright, billowy nature and the way their changing colors reflect the seasons. A few water plants and ivy that will climb the screen, along with seasonal plantings in pots on the deck, stairs, and bridge, round out the selection. The look is simple, the feeling peaceful.

"There’s a definite connection to their desire to have a calming kind of space," Blender says. It works very well for parties and for performances-Giacomo can bring his instruments right out from his studio and onto the deck-but this is not exactly a kid-friendly yard or a place to toss a tennis ball for the dog.

Not a problem, Blender says. Should kids or dogs visit, "They have a nice park across the street."

RESOURCES Architect: Richard Blender, Wilkinson Blender Architecture, 2041 W. Roscoe St., 773-665-8377; wbarch.com