Entering a condo typically follows the same path: riding a windowless elevator to a windowless hallway only to pass through a small door into a dark space, with the window or windows somewhere off in the distance. It’s an apt progression for the sun-averse, until you hit a wall of glass and then things might actually be too bright (vampires beware).
Jennifer Ouano, a media and technology entrepreneur, has a different experience. There’s still an elevator and a corridor involved in reaching her 3,600-square-foot, two-bedroom condo. Elevators and corridors are hard to avoid when living on the 48th floor.
But next to Ms. Ouano’s foyer, right after passing through her entryway and well before reaching the bank of windows in the far-off living area, sun shines through the glass walls of a double-height courtyard. Although the apartment is in the middle of a major city, the courtyard, which is open at the top to the sky above, acts as a terrarium. It’s packed with plant-life, including the moss-covered remains of a tall red cedar. The vegetation washes light green, recreating the calming effect of walking through a west coast rainforest. The surprise enough to make visitors forget they are in a condo at all.
Ms. Ouano’s home sits on the top two floors of Vancouver House, a twisting skyscraper designed by star Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. She bought her place years ago, before the building’s construction was completed in 2020. The structure’s architecture is impressive, with a metallic, chainmail-like façade that arcs over an onramp to the Granville Street bridge below. The original plans for the interiors – white marble, white case work, white walls – was less inspiring. “I wasn’t crazy about it,” Ms. Ouano says.
Wanting to avoid white-on-white blandness is one thing. But where did the concept come from to build a rainforest in the sky?
To prepare a new look for her suite, Ms. Ouano opted to work with Vancouver architect Michael Leckie. In addition to his own studio, Leckie Studio Architecture and Design, he also runs a prefab cottage business called the Backcountry Hut Company. In either case, he has a deft hand for crafting spaces that sit well in nature. He recently completed a new hospitality project called Arcana, which consists of wood-lined, 275-square-foot cabins isolated in the forest (each cabin is clad in reflective metal to better mirror the surrounding foliage). Even his urban homes make beautiful use of natural materials, green roofs and inside-outside connections.
“Two key factors won me over to Michael: His ability to listen and his openness to collaboration,” says Ms. Ouano. “We played around with some ideas for a big moment in this space. I thought about the urban-ness of living in a downtown condo tower surrounded by glass and concrete. I’ve got a great view of the mountains, but what would it be like if the mountains and forest lived inside a condo? That’s how the idea of the terrarium came to be.”
“Nature is so integral to many people’s idea and experience of Vancouver,” Mr. Leckie says. “Still, it’s possible to feel isolated and divorced from it, especially living way up in a tower. We wanted to transplant the feeling of being outside to the heart of a condo. That’s why we brought in what’s called a ‘nurse log,’ a piece of old-growth tree with other plants growing out of it.”
Adding biodiversity to a concrete box 48 storeys in the air isn’t easy. “It would be nearly impossible to do this to an existing condo,” Mr. Leckie says. “The building envelope is typically considered limited common property and can’t be changed.” Because Ms. Ouano purchased preconstruction, she and Mr. Leckie were able to work with the developers, Westbank Corp., to incise the courtyard into the roof.
After that, “we had to crane the nurse log in place,” says Mr. Leckie, who points out that the terrarium is accessible by a giant, sliding glass door.
“We wanted a peaceful place,” Mr. Leckie says. “It was important to us that the place not be a generic garden. We wanted it to feel rooted in the Pacific northwest.”
The courtyard serves as the focal point of the whole condo. In its way, its natural beauty also sparked the feel for the rest of the rooms. “I’m a fan of contemporary interiors but not of the typical look associated with modern minimalism – cold, cavernous, glossy, sharp edges,” she says. “That sensibility wouldn’t feel like home.”
“Jennifer wanted warm,” Mr. Leckie says. “We still used a restrained palette. There aren’t that many materials. But we focused on rich woods and stone, including walnut and travertine, which create a nice juxtaposition together.”
Although there are still some neutral elements, such as texture grey concrete wall lining the staircase beside the courtyard, there are also wonderful pops of colour, not unlike flowers growing in a forest. Over the stairs, a frenetic light fixture by Vancouver-based brand Bocci brings to mind fireflies fluttering between blooms of pink, orange, green and blue.
“The entire space is an ode to the senses,” Ms. Ouano says. “It’s very physical and full of joy. You want to touch the grain of the walnut wood panels or the roughness of the corrugated concrete; place your bare feet on the buttery travertine; giggle at the tangled copper curlicues and multicoloured orbs in the stairway; stick your head inside the terrarium and breathe in the smell of the forest. No matter where you are in the space, you experience something delightful.”