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