architecture drives change
Studio Gang has been thinking about the Chicago River for some time. In 2011, Jeanne Gang taught a studio at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, her alma mater, a theoretical endeavor that led to a publication titled Reverse Effect: Renewing Chicago’s Waterways. That Harvard studio proposed designs for a hydrological barrier and center for limnology at the curiously named Bubbly Creek. The publication catalogs the student work but also lays out the history of Chicago’s multi-pronged river and many critical environmental issues facing waterways linking Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes to the Des Plaines River, just west of Chicago. In an extraordinary feat of manpower and engineering, the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal in the 1890s reversed the flow of the Chicago River so that sewage and other pollutants consequently seep into the Des Plaines River, a tributary of the Mississippi, and by extension south to the Gulf of Mexico. The Eleanor Boathouse by Studio Gang is both a tectonic exercise, i.e. a formal object, and an expression or outcome of the recuperation of Chicago’s complex hydrological network. It is the fourth such structure erected during the term of the city’s current mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and the second public boathouse designed by Studio Gang. The Eleanor Boathouse occupies a flat site with distant views of Downtown Chicago, with its iconic high-rises, to the north. It faces west across a basin of sluggish water at the juncture of the Chicago River and Bubbly Creek. The immediate context is today devoid of the stockyards and slaughterhouses for which it was once infamous. Indeed, Bubbly Creek’s name is due to the grease, chemicals and other filth dumped into this waterway where, as Upton Sinclair remarked in The Jungle (1906), “bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide.” The Boathouse both signals the geometry of exercise through its morphology and helps revitalize the river as a public amenity - the “backyard of the city”, in Gang’s words, to complement the magnificent “front yard” of Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive. It is intended as a meeting place for groups across society: teenagers from local high schools, young adults from the University of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology, and, as on a recent cold winter morning, cancer survivors embracing exercise as therapy. The Boathouse is in fact two structures: the longer shed stores the many beautiful rowing boats in stacks whereas the shorter, the “field house”, is climate-controlled and accommodates gym facilities and social areas. Both pavilions are clad in zinc. They splay to either side of an informal entry axis so that the visitor proceeds to encounter an extensive yard, stepping and ramping into the water, and the far panorama of the Downtown skyline. The manipulation by Gang of comparatively simple steel trusses gives the boathouse its jaunty zigzag or sawtooth roof, its key identifying element. The trusses alternate between “A” and “M” configurations, the former rising to a peak at midpoint, the latter sloping from a low midpoint to an apex at both extremities. Gang admires the resulting syncopation, liking the succession of high and low members to the movement and rhythm of rowers out on the water, a neat metaphor for the project and one heralding the specificity of its purpose. Fifty years ago, Robert Venturi proposed a classification of buildings as either duck or decorated shed. Gang’s boathouse is slyly, and economically, in-between such categories. Her pavilions harness their modest components to meaningful effect, exploiting the spare physicality of the trusses to lift the architecture from two to three dimensions, from flatness to spatiality, and creating a facility with urban and topographic resonance. The concatenation of trusses, each second truss inverted, establishes the Eleanor Boathouse’s roofline. On the outside, the principal lines and surfaces appear orthogonal. Inside, however, the plywood ceilings curve or warp as they extend and stretch between the upper and lower members of consecutive “A” and “M”-shaped trusses. Translucent panels seal the exterior surfaces of these raised trusses, admitting generous natural light from the south to bathe the interior. As the buildings contain single-story volumes, the steel is exposed without the need for hefty fire protection. Each bay opens to the outdoor staging area via black garage doors. The outer wall of the gym is fully glazed to take advantage of Downtown views. In a characteristic Gang move - a move at once economical and stylish - the south-facing end-wall of the storage pavilion is infilled with pole-like steel members spaced slightly apart to allow for direct ventilation and painted in a striking spectrum of greens. As with minor switches in plan at the Eleanor Boathouse, Gang is adept at introducing small inflections into building components and their assembly, an approach to morphology with affinities to fabric design yet also, at a larger scale, recalling form and pattern found in nature. An architecture, therefore, less static and self-referential than Venturi’s shed and more responsive to exterior phenomena of topography, climate and infrastructure. In her Reverse Effect publication, Gang envisaged “the city as an interconnected, ecological system… from humans all the way down the food chain to algae.” At both boathouses, and in other recent works like residential buildings at the University of Chicago or the Glencoe Writers Theatre north of Downtown, Gang is working toward a new environmental balance in the Windy City, a constructed and deliberate equilibrium in which even a desolate and abandoned river can work afresh for society’s benefit and pleasure.