Reclaiming and reinvigorating the long-polluted Chicago River is an immense but necessary undertaking. The challenge that any intervention along this waterway must meet is to catalyze momentum for its revitalization in an inclusive, effective, and cost-efficient way. The WMS Boathouse at Clark Park and Eleanor Boathouse at Park 571, two of four boathouses built throughout Chicago, IL, USA, as part of a city-wide initiative, offer the public unprecedented access to the river through modest yet potent architectural and landscape interventions, supporting the larger movement toward the ecological and recreational revival of this important urban waterway.
In 2011, Studio Gang co-published a book with the United States’ Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental non-profit, that highlighted the challenges facing Chicago’s waterways and outlined an actionable vision rooted in strengthening Chicagoans’ connection to the river. The boathouses set this vision in motion through a program type that brings people together and fosters wellness for both Chicagoans and the complex ecosystem of the river. Located in public parks, the boathouses serve people from all over the city, but are especially welcoming to youth rowing teams that prepare young people for success by teaching teamwork and self-discipline and encouraging personal growth.
Each boathouse is divided into two distinct structures that form a portal to the water’s edge. This strategy helped the projects stay within their modest budgets by detaching the fully conditioned assembly space of the field house from the simpler function of the boat storage building. The field houses accommodate year-round training programs for both youth and adult rowing teams, clubs, and organizations, providing space for team practice, fitness, and courses for people with disabilities. After-school mentoring programs and neighborhood gatherings also take place in these spaces. The boat storage buildings house rental kayaks and canoes as well as the rowing teams’ eight-person shells; their structural systems are coordinated to support boat racks and oar storage. Large outdoor aprons and docks allow for maneuvering onto the river and embrace each site’s distinct river condition.
The boathouses’ distinctive clerestory roofs were derived from Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-motion photographs of rowing, with the high and low positions of the oar translated into alternating structural steel truss shapes—an inverted “V” and “M”—that filter light into the buildings and delineate a dynamic, rhythmic modulation. The secondary structures between the truss types are composed entirely of straight elements that altogether form a warped surface described by bendable plywood panels.
The boathouses are designed to reduce energy use through a combination of passive strategies and efficient systems. Winter sun through the clerestories warms the floor slabs, reducing heating demand. In summer, the clerestories provide natural ventilation, eliminating the need for mechanical cooling.
The structures are clad in zinc and slate panels—durable and low-maintenance in Chicago’s cold-winter, hot-summer climate cycle—that can also be easily repaired and replaced. These material choices, along with Douglas fir plywood, enable an elegant, distinctive, and economical design. Yet a major challenge of the project was expanding the Chicago Park District’s standard and desired palette of cost-effective, durable materials such as brick or CMU that they have used for other public buildings and projects. The design team worked with the Park District to expand this palette by demonstrating slate and zinc’s high durability and low-maintenance—for instance, slate has a natural low moisture-absorption rate and resistance to freeze-thaw cycles and can be detailed for easy replacement. These assets combined with the materials’ ability to accommodate the saw-toothed roof form proved the material was a viable solution for the client and the design.
The overall goal of a healthy river led the design team to focus on diverting storm water from the city’s combined sewer system, one of the largest impediments to water quality in the Chicago River. The boathouses’ roof drainage and site design together function as their storm-water management systems, diverting 100% of runoff from the sewer. This solution effectively minimizes the release of contaminants and effluents into the river when maximum capacity has been reached. The boathouses also utilize green infrastructure—porous concrete and asphalt, native plantings, gravel beds, and bioswales (rain gardens)—to store and filter runoff before slowly releasing this newly clean water back into the river. Additionally, existing habitats on both sites were maintained and strengthened with a mix of grass, native plants, and trees, and silt fabric prevented compaction and erosion during construction.
The boathouses were funded in part by grants from the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the City of Chicago, and private donations through a public-private partnership model.
Founded by Jeanne Gang in 1997, Studio Gang is an architecture and urban design practice in Chicago and New York. The Studio works across types and scales of projects—from cultural and public buildings, to urban parks, to high-rise towers—to create places that connect people with each other and their environment. A sustainability ethos is central to the practice, coupled with a methodology defined by research, experimentation, and interdisciplinary collaboration. This approach has enabled the Studio to produce innovative architecture recognized for a strong connection to its specific place and purpose, including such award-winning projects as the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College; Writers Theatre on Chicago’s North Side; and two public boathouses on the Chicago River. The Studio is currently working on major projects throughout the Americas and Europe.