Northwestern University Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center - Perkins+Will
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Northwestern University Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center

A Glazed Sculpture on the Edge of Lake Michigan


Edited By Caterina Testa - 4 May 2020

One of America’s top ranking places of higher education, Northwestern University in the state of Illinois is headquartered in Evanston, a northern suburb of the huge metropolitan area of Chicago bordering Lake Michigan. Most of the university campus enjoys an enviable location around the bay of the lake. Like the built-up downtown area, the concentration and massing of the university campus buildings contrast with the nearby low-density suburbs of mainly detached family houses in their own grounds.

The project for the Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center developed out of the university’s decision to move its existing sports facilities located far from the campus center to an existing recreation facility closer to hand, and so make sports and athletic activities a more integral part of academic life, while at the same time providing the local population with an event and concert venue.

Designed by Perkins & Will to resonate with all the existing features around its lakeside site, the athletics center is bounded to the west by the existing recreation facility and to the east by the edge of the lake. A small very popular public beach lies to the north while to the south are open sports fields. A public pedestrian path runs along the lake connecting the beach with the other campus activities. To the north are pine forests and lakeside residences while the skyline of Chicago appears to the south. Despite this wide variety of contiguous features, the design overcomes the constraints of the site and exploits its advantages. The beach and popular public footpath running along the lake were the two elements that most impacted the massing of the center. The floor of the fieldhouse is raised to the second level to allow the pedestrian path to pass underneath its cantilevered northeast corner. In deference to this public path, the project also included carefully designed street furniture. Raising the building also provides further flooding protection in addition to the 150-m lakeside wall protecting the center, its foundations and the path from the often turbulent waters and winter ice. Echoing the sinuous form of both waves and sand dunes, this scientifically calibrated and tested retaining wall stands in striking counterpoint to the imposing yet transparent mass of the building.

Two formal ground-floor entrances provide different public access, reflecting the center’s two different kinds of users. The north entrance is open to the general public while the south security ingress facing the campus is reserved for athletes, coaches and athletic administrators. Inside, the ground floor is given over to sports-allied activities: locker rooms, offices, recreational areas and catering facilities.

The athletics center proper sits atop the raised floor like a gigantic glazed platform suspended between sky and water. As well as maximizing natural daylighting, the north-facing glazed curtain wall has been designed to minimize visual obstruction created by frame members and provide unimpeded views over the lake.

The huge horizontal block resembling an upside down ship’s hull encloses a highly complex and articulated volume catering for a wide range of sports activities: football, baseball, soccer, and track and field. A series of sculptural steel arches provide the structural skeleton from which wishbone kickers spur off to hold the edge beam that in turn supports the perimeter of the roof and from which the glass wall hangs.

In its magnificent lakeside site, the sculptural architecture of the Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center by Perkins & Will resembles a sleek low-lying modern liner docked at the lake’s edge.

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