Tag Archives: chicago

WMS Boathouse at Clark Park

WMS Boathouse at Clark Park in Chicago, Illinois, by Studio Gang Architects, 2013

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Jeanne Gang and Studio Gang Architects (SGA) have been infatuated with water for some time now – metaphorically, in the rippling facade of the Aqua Tower; directly, in landscape projects like the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo; or on the large scale, in projects like Reverse Effect, which proposes re-reversing the Chicago River, among other tactics, to improve the ecosystem of Lake Michigan. A recent addition to the above water-related projects in their hometown of Chicago is the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park, situated along the Chicago River about eight miles north and west of the Loop.

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Like Reverse Effect, the boathouse is envisioned as a means of remediating one of Chicago's waterways. As SGA describes it: "By creating a key public access point along the river’s edge, it supports the larger movement toward an ecological and recreational revival of the Chicago River." This building and access point will hopefully "transform the long-polluted and neglected Chicago River into its next recreational frontier." Chicago – flat and gridded – has long oriented itself toward the lake, whose length in the city is public and almost entirely recreational, be it beaches, museums and parks (one of which is being designed by SGA for the old Miegs Field). So it's no wonder that the river – reversed in the early 1900s so that pollution wouldn't flow into the lake, the source of the city's drinking water – has been neglected.

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

SGA's design separates the project into two buildings: a two-story Field House on the south and a one-story Boat Storage on the south; in between is a courtyard that aligns with the access down to the water on the west. Each building has a distinctive serrated roofline that "translates the poetic motion and rhythm of rowing into an architectural roof form, providing visual interest while also offering spatial and environmental advantages that allow the boathouse to adapt to Chicago’s distinctive seasonal changes." The main driver of the form is sunlight, such that "the roof achieves a rhythmic modulation that lets in southern light through the building’s upper clerestory."

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

The reading of the forms is aided by the muted palette of exterior materials, notably zinc and slate, which give the building a sense of solidity while also accentuating the interior spaces when lights glow from the inside in the evening. The palette inside is just as spare, with plywood used for the walls and ceilings and exposed concrete on the floors. It all adds up to an inexpensive building ($8.8 million) that hardly looks cheap.

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Photo: Steve Hall © Hedrich Blessing, courtesy of Studio Gang Architects

Site Plan/First Floor Plan

Longitudinal Section

Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo

Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, by Studio Gang Architects, 2010.

On a recent trip to Chicago a good deal of my agenda revolved around the work of Studio Gang Architects. I visited their studio, got a tour of the Radisson Blu at Aqua Tower, and visited the exhibition Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects at the Art Institute of Chicago. Much of it is documented in the Insight feature at World-Architects, but here I wanted to delve into another one of their projects I visited, the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. Like many of Jeanne Gang's post-Aqua projects, the Nature Boardwalk has received a fair amount of press, but much of it centers on the open-air pavilion that sits on the east side of the pond. While I'm also guilty of honing in on the pavilion with my camera, here I'll discuss the larger plan for the pond as well as the design of the pavilion itself.

The name Nature Boardwalk should tip people that the project focuses on a linear path, one that follows the edge of the Lincoln Park Zoo's South Pond. The pond was created shortly after the zoo's founding around 1870, before which the land was a cemetery, as Lynn Becker describes. Over the years its hard, engineered edges and shallow bed contributed to the unhealthy nature of the oxygen-starved pond. Gang and her team of consultants, including landscape architect WRD Environmental, worked to transform the 14-acre landscape into "a native Midwestern, self-sustaining ecosystem, featuring an array of prairie plants and 100 new trees." The primary means to achieve this and increasing habitat for wildlife are via a "re-engineered pond with naturalized shorelines and depths that welcome wildlife." (Quotes from WRD website.)

Having lived in the area about 15 years ago, and not returning to Chicago since 2007, I was amazed by the change. Basically I did not recognize the South Pond. Its softened edges and snaking boardwalk completely changed the character of the place, making it resemble a piece of nature that predated Chicago's build-up rather than a human-made landscape. Walking the boardwalk is a great experience, as it zigs and zags among the plantings and sometimes juts out over the water. And the changes are not just visual, as the transformation of the pond has already increased the diversity of the place's wildlife, both for residents (fish, turtles) and migratory creatures (birds).

The pond has become a laboratory, a barrier-free zoo exhibit, and a classroom. The last is primarily served by the pavilion (technically, and unfortunately, the Peoples Gas Education Pavilion), which straddles the boardwalk on the east side of the pond. Gang was inspired by the form and related structural strength of milkweed pods. This inspiration can be found in the fiberglass domes that shield the 17-foot-high (at its peak) structure that is made from curved, laminated wood pieces bolted together. The alien presence sits on axis with the John Hancock building to the south, shielding the classes and others that use the space from the high summer sun. Openings at the base of the structure aid in natural ventilation across the space. The pavilion adds an exclamation point to the Nature Boardwalk, but more importantly it provides an excuse to stop for a while and take in the zoo's "return to nature."

Poetry Foundation

Poetry Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, by John Ronan Architects, 2011.

While the Poetry Foundation only dates back to 2003—its establishment aided by the generosity of philanthropist Ruth Lilly—its roots go back much further: to 1941, when the Modern Poetry Association, out of which it evolved, was founded; and to 1912, when Poetry magazine, which the foundation publishes, printed its first issue. The organization's mission is to "discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience." A large part of this is accomplished through the foundation's new building in Chicago's River North neighborhood, designed by John Ronan Architects.

Although the two-story building sits in the midst of residential high-rises, the black corrugated metal wrapper (oxidized zinc, actually) gives the foundation a strong presence on its corner. Three things are happening with this exterior: solid panels provide a border at the ends and along the top; perforated panels give glimpses beyond; and a cutaway at the corner reveals the glass and wood inside and allows access to the building. Yet moving underneath the cantilevered corner reveals that the entrance to the building is not at the corner, where it might typically be located; instead one is drawn along a narrow exterior walkway to the garden beyond.

This garden, which was designed with Reed Hilderbrand and sits behind the long, north-facing expanse of perforated metal, is accessible even when the building is closed (floor plan). Strips of grass are cut into the paving, defining the location of now young trees. Visitors meander among these bits of nature toward the entrance in a glass wall parallel to the zinc facade. From within the garden and its path four things are put on display: first the performance space along the path (photo below right), then the two-story library on the west side, then a colorful mural of Poetry magazine covers behind the entry's glass wall, and finally the city itself through the perforated metal. Of course one's experience of these parts of the building overlaps, but Ronan has managed to instill a bit of control to the entry sequence (even as nearby high-rises seem to peer over the walls into the garden), an in-between zone that readies one for a visit to the foundation. The gauzy glimpse to the street is an especially poetic image, celebrating the city while toning down its sights and sounds.

Public spaces inside the building are limited to a few on the first floor: the performance space, a small gallery, and the library. As mentioned, each one of these spaces faces onto the garden through full-height glass walls, in effect making the outdoor space the most important part of the project. As the trees mature, the character of this space will soften as will the hard edges of the building. This is hinted at by the bamboo that is shooting up through the open stair that connects the public spaces to the offices upstairs. Admittedly, I did visit on a cold autumn day well after the trees had lost their leaves, but the presence of nature in the garden is an important one, both for softening the architecture and offering up juxtapositions—natural vs. artificial, garden in the city, etc.—that are potentially poetic and surely enriching.

The City as Campus

The City as Campus: Urbanism and Higher Education in Chicago by Sharon Haar
University of Minnesota Press, 2011
Paperback, 264 pages

Growing up in the suburbs north of Chicago, trips into the city were rare and therefore special. These included visiting museums and taking in the occasional play or other event with the family, as well as organized school field trips. A number of the latter were part of an Urban Studies class in high school, one of which included my first visit to the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). We walked around the campus, an assemblage of brutalist buildings, but our goal that day seemed to be Hull House, located on the eastern edge of campus. Nothing could have been more different from UIC than Hull House; the former appeared modern and big while the latter was historic and tiny next to the campus buildings. Situated next to the campus's "front door," Hull House spoke to a history that UIC displaced, but reading Sharon Haar's account of "urbanism and higher education in Chicago" that relationship is hardly the whole story.

Haar, an associate professor of architecture at UIC who has written a good deal on education, looks at various colleges across Chicago (University of Chicago, IIT, Roosevelt, Columbia College, etc.) in this book, but she focuses on UIC and the urban renewal that enabled its existence west of the Loop 50 years ago. She begins the book by going back to the 19th century and the origins of Hull House. It is used as an exemplar of a social institution geared towards improving the city be being embedded within it. Women at Hull House learned by doing and by being part of the community, not in a learning environment segregated from its environs. While Hull House was never articulated as a school -- it was much more multi-faceted and flexible, morphing over time depending on changes happening around it -- it serves as a model for universities and other higher-ed schools that do not separate themselves from the cities they serve and call home. In this sense it is the anti-UIC, which is a campus built from a tabula rasa achieved through "slum" demolition. The irony of Hull House's preservation as a museum at UIC's front stoop is quite evident, even, to a lesser degree, to me all those years ago.

Haar's in-depth history of UIC's realization, which occupies the middle chunk of her book, is fascinating. It's a history I've always wanted to discover, ever since seeing it for the first time in person; years later, after moving to Chicago, I grew skeptical of the school's urban merits, especially as it expanded to the s0uth and east through even more demolition. Haar covers this latest UIC expansion alongside other urban schools -- the others are concentrated in the South Loop -- that are knitting themselves into their surrounding communities, a 21st century version of the Hull House. While Roosevelt, DePaul, Columbia College, and others should be commended for their various efforts in preserving and activating parts of the South Loop, I'm not convinced that UIC's latest expansion should be held in such high regard (this is not to say Haar does), since it involved the demolition of buildings at the historic Maxwell Street Market, the preservation of some building fronts via Disney-like facadectomy, and the creation of University Village, bland middle-to-upper-class housing. UIC did not so much knit into the surrounding community as fabricate a community that may over time serve the same ends as what the South Loop institutions are doing today.

Haar ends the book by speculating on the future of higher education in urban settings. Based on her analysis of UIC and Chicago, it's not surprising that she sees the South Loop schools heading in the right direction. Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion and Harvard's expansion across the Charles River are used as examples of how schools are dealing with growth in and around their urban campuses. While they are not trying to recreate the walled-off campuses of yore, their efforts illustrate the contestations that come with expansion into communities. This is most evident in the prolonged, yet unsuccessful fight to block Columbia's use of eminent domain in its northward expansion. Columbia's high-profile, large-scale plans easily overshadow what other schools may be doing, but hopefully its realization will not make it the model for moving forward. Even as it is rooted in the westward movement of office space in Chicago's core, the South Loop's mix of preservation and new construction (admittedly not much of the latter is architecturally interesting) is a better model for creating vertical campuses within vertical cities.

US: Buy from Amazon.com CA: Buy from Amazon.ca UK: Buy from Amazon.co.uk

1617 North Wolcott

1617 North Wolcott in Chicago, Illinois by Studio Dwell Architects, 2009.

The Wicker Park and Bucktown on Chicago's northwest side are popular neighborhoods with an epicenter at the three-way intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee Avenues. A few blocks to the east of the intersection, and a half-block north of the excellent Quimby's Bookstore, sits this narrow four-story residence designed by Studio Dwell Architects. The popularity of the area is evident in the house itself but also in Ranquist Development's larger Urban Sandbox of which it is a part. This fairly cohesive modernist streetwall includes houses to the north also by Studio Dwell and and a multi-family project on the south designed by the Miller Hull Partnership.

The four-story house at 1617 North Wolcott locates the main living space above the ground-floor's four-car garage (off the rear alley), work/studio spaces and the front door. From the street the entrance is tucked under the cantilever of the top floors, accessed alongside a small rock garden. The dark masonry on this level is the only place that veers from the rest of the building's white masonry and cedar cladding. This dark base gives the impression that the upper floors float above it.

The intention was to create a home that no matter the mood or frame of mind of an owner, it makes them forget even their worst day; to create a light filled retreat in a tight urban setting; to create a residential Light Box. -Studio Dwell Architects

This "Light Box" appears crisp and abstract owing to the composition of the window openings on the elevations -- primarily on the front -- and the articulation of the masonry. In the case of the first, the double-height living room is the only space that receives a window, the effect of its opening enlarged by the addition of the wood rectangle besides it; above it the master bedroom receives light from the side. With the masonry, it is articulated in a stacked bond, so the white box appears to be covered with a simple grid; this approach counters a reading of the exterior as masonry, which would occur if running or some other bond were used.

The Light Box effect continues inside in the way the architects shaped the four-story volume to bring light into the various spaces, while also creating usable outdoor space. This starts at the rear of the house, with the terrace above the garage. In the center of the plan, facing south, is a small light well that serves three floors and provides an outdoor eating area next to the kitchen. Even the side wall at the front of the house is set back from the property line to allow the windows for the master bedroom. Lastly, the third floor is notched at the back to create a terrace and two generous spaces on the roof round out the varied outdoor spaces provided the residents. Minimal finishes of white and wood make the interiors an almost mirror of the outside, two sides of the same Light Box.

The Slow Food Guide to Chicago

The Slow Food Guide to Chicago: Restaurants, Markets, Bars edited by Kelly Gibson and Portia Belloc Lowndes
Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008
Paperback, 284 pages

Slow Food, a movement started in Italy almost twenty years ago, aims "to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life." The popularity of the movement is evident in this well-crafted book, the second in a series on American cities that began, naturally enough, with New York City. While not all places in the book fit their definition of Slow, those that do are noted with the snail logo. Not surprisingly, the most snails fall under the American category, where local ingredients are more appropriate than popular international styles like Thai, French, or Italian. It was pleasing to see that unlike other guides to culinary Chicago, this one does not have an overwhelming North Side bias, with the inclusion of many South Side locations that the typical Slow Eater might now know about. The guide does have its shortcomings, though these are small, such as the fact the photographs sprinkled throughout have no relationship to the text, writing that can be a bit trite at times, and the lack of decent, detailed maps. Overall it offered many surprises and helpful recommendations, something a good guidebook should accomplish.

Kam L. Liu Building

Kam L. Liu Building in Chicago, Illinois by Studio Gang/O'Donnell, 2004.

Approaching the Kam L. Liu Building of the Chinese American Service League from the Chinese Gate and other familiar parts of Chicago's Chinatown, one notices three things: the building's titanium-cladding, a decorative sunshade and balcony on the west exposure, and the lift bridges and their massive counterweights to the north. Designed by local firm Studio Gang/O'Donnell (now Studio Gang), the east-west oriented three-story building accommodates numerous programs in its 38,000 s.f. for the Chinese-American population, especially recent arrivals.

The image above illustrates the proximity of the lift bridges - just past the "L" tracks and the Chicago River - and their impact upon the building and its context. Studio Gang/O'Donnell's solution seems to mediate between this industrial area to the north and the colorful pagodas and other traditional Chinese touches on buildings to the south.

The decorative sunscreen on the west facade also serves a function, to cut down on the strong western sun entering the double-height community room that the exterior expresses. Its articulation - full-height verticals with staggered horizontals and additional, tightly-spaced vertical fins at the top and bottom - is reminiscent of traditional Chinese lattice-work, while also fitting in with the structural expression of the bridges beyond.

On all four sides of the building, the titanium cladding is a two-story wrapper above the one-story base, helping to create a pedestrian scale but also creating a contrast between the sparse base and the square titanium panels, turned 45 degrees and overlapping slightly to help keep water out and as an interesting effect. Again this element refers to traditional Chinese architecture through its decorative articulation of an ultimately functional part of the building, while also relating to its industrial neighbor through its materiality. The Liu Building is an understated and well-thought out building that contributes to its neighborhood and Chicago's contemporary architecture scene through its subtle articulation of parts.

[Google Earth link]

Unexpected Chicagoland

Unexpected Chicagoland by Camilo José Vergara and Timothy J. Samuelson
The New Press, 2001
Hardcover, 208 pages

Photographer Vergara's collaboration with Chicago historian Samuelson was published in 2001, in conjunction with an exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. His focus is the overlooked pieces of cities and their changes over time, due to neglect, gentrification, politics, commercialism, etc. Sections include obvious choices like George Pullman's company town (its administration building gracing the cover) and Frank Lloyd Wright houses fallen into disrepair, but also many ordinary objects taken for granted that gain a certain meaning over time, like public service billboards, neon signs, 1950's motels, and the ever-present corner turret in all it's shapes, sizes and materials. Featuring over 200 color photographs, the images don't strike me as beautiful, but instead they document a place and time without glossing over the decay of time nor the less-pleasing changes that have occurred in cities. Mainly, the book makes me want to rent a car and drive around the city, exploring all these places I have yet to come across in my regular routine, before it's too late.


Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade
University of Chicago Press, 1969
Hardcover, 522 pages

Covering the prairie city's growth from 1830 until the book's initial publication in 1969, the authors tell the story of Chicago in illustrations, maps and photographs. Through the first we see the small seaport's early growth and through the last we see the seaport boom into the most important city in the Midwestern United States. Each chapter cover roughly twenty years, the first two leading up to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, where photos can most dramatically show both the prosperity of the city and its subsequent destruction. The rebuilding of the city follows, through to the significant events of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, the building boom of the 1920's, the rise of the suburbs and public housing around World War II, ending at the high-rise building boom taking place as the authors penned the book. Thankfully, Mayer and Wade fill in the gaps between these events with the wide exposure that's required to document the city's growth. In addition to the significant buildings featured in architecture guides and architectural history books, the duo spends equal time showing us lower-income areas, outlying areas, industrial areas and the like. Although much has changed since the book's publication (and second edition in 1973), Chicago stands as a fitting testement to the strength and drive of the Midwestern metropolis.

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool in Chicago, Illinois by Eifler & Associates Architects, 2001.

Local firm Eifler & Associates Architects (with landscape architect Wolff Clements & Associates) received a 2003 Design Excellence Award from the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects for its restoration of the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool (formerly the Rookery) in the Lincoln Park Zoo on the north side of Chicago. Designed by landscape architect Alfred Caldwell in the 1930's, the Lily Pool consists of two interlocking pavilions overlooking the water with paths meandering between indigenous plants and entry gates.

Since its completion, the pavilions have undergone various renovations, including roofing repairs and changes and reparations and replacement of the framing. This patchwork of fixes disappeared as the architects restored the pavilions to their original forms, subtly reminiscent of Prairie School architecture but devoted to blending with the Midwestern landscape of its setting. Their limestone walls appear to be built from the limestone ground they sit upon, the same stone of the water's edge. The wood framing of the pavilions blend into the surrounding trees regardless of the season, particularly the autumn when the burnt leaves come closest to the wood's color.

In Chicago in the early 20th century, like many other cities in the Midwest, nature was dwindling because of human settlement and a lack of sensitivity and understanding for the unique aspects of the regional landscape. Motivated by this change, Caldwell approached landscape architecture as a means for humans to appreciate the natural beauty of their surroundings via conservation of the indigenous landscape. The Lily Pool became an urban oasis, a place for serene introspection in the midst of the city's bustle. Not only could people appreciate the water, trees and flowers, but also the birds that were attracted to the food plants and weedy vegetation.

Almost 70 years since the completion of Caldwell's design, the pace of human settlement is even quicker, but appreciation of nature is growing as well. Regionally, prairie style gardening is popular as people grasp the beauty of indigenous plants over manicured lawns and fertilizers. Chicago's City Hall boasts a green roof and even bees whose honey was auctioned to raise money for a local art's program. And all year long people can visit the rededicated Lily Pool, whose restoration and improvements may extend the reach of Caldwell's ambitious vision to generations in the 21st century.

[Google Earth link]