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Thinking BIENNIALLY: Designers OFFER Visions Of Chicago's Future

Thinking BIENNIALLY: Designers OFFER visions of Chicago's Future

B     I     E     N     N     I     A     L         D     I     S     P     A     T     C     H     E     S

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by JOHN GREGERSON, First in a new series | Oct 27, 2015

Here's a not-so-modest-proposal about the future of downtown Chicago, put forth by PORT Urbanism design director Christopher Marcinkoski: “Since the city doesn't allow construction east of Lake Shore Drive (LSD),” he deadpanned, “move Lake Shore Drive.”

The remark elicited chuckles Oct. 20 from a full house at the Chicago Cultural Center, but Marcinkoski was dead serious. He described the bold idea at a Chicago Architecture Biennial (CAB) public event entitled BOLD: Alternative Scenarios for Chicago. Now in just its third week, CAB is the city's extraordinary, three-month-long open dialogue on The State of the Art of Architecture.  

Lamenting the fact that Chicago's greatest urban planning achievements seem to be in the past, Marcinkowski proposed “The Big Shift,” an ambitious idea to move a 1.5-mile-long section of LSD due east, into Lake Michigan, incorporating landfill to accommodate a new skyline and 150 acres of public space. “The lakefront is the the city's greatest cultural and economic asset,” he explained, noting that his idea conceivably would also allow city planners to re-scale Chicago's adjacent Grant Park to the size of NYC's Central Park, which was designed by the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Featuring several presentations, BOLD fleshed out multiple scenarios as part of an initiative challenging local designers to think big about the opportunities and obstacles the city now faces. “We wanted to see what architects could bring to the table, with an understanding of the constraints and realities that Chicago poses,” said session moderator Iker Gil, an architect, author, and director of MAS Studio.

We wanted to see what architects could bring to the table.
— Iker Gil, director, MAS Studio
Filter Island© UrbanLab

Filter Island© UrbanLab

The High Life ©SOM

The High Life ©SOM

Among the more imaginative ideas, Filter Island envisions locating wetlands in Lake Michigan off the Chicago River to create “micro ecologies” that eliminate the large sewage dumps that pollute the waters after large rains, occurrences which presenter Martin Felsen, a principal at designer UrbanLab, said are occurring more frequently now. Rather than simply clean the lake, the plan would introduce cultural programs and walkways to the land mass, albeit in a manner that wouldn't interfere with its principal purpose. Although he didn't specify dimensions, Felsen indicated the mass would be of a size capable of contending with a 100-year flood.

Leaving the lakefront, another proposal, The High Life, looks skyward, redefining the residential high-rise to craft a verdant, vertical neighborhood. Presented by SOM Associate Director Andrew Obenderf and CAMESgibson President Grant Gibson, the plan cantilevers “homes” off a central core, while infilling with additional space allocated to create public domains. Such a model could conceivably “optimize adjacencies by incorporating high-strength concrete to reduce the size of the core,” Obendorf explained.

hiding in plain sight

The Available City proposal seeks to make the most of assets already here, just forgotten. David Brown, associate professor and associate director with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture, stunned attendees when he noted that the city currently has 15,000 vacant lots that, in their aggregate, are as large as Chicago's Loop.

“A vacant lot negatively impacts the structures around it,” Brown observed. His presentation, The Available City, focused on infilling the lots in ways that build community, particularly in poorer, under-served neighborhoods. With input from nine design firms, concepts – or "collective spaces", as Brown described them – ranged from community gardens, playgrounds and public art to barbecue pits and areas for walking dogs.

The Available City - David Brown @UIC

The Available City - David Brown @UIC

Conor O'Shea

Conor O'Shea

Meanwhile, Conor O'Shea, founder and principal with Hinterlands Urbanism and Landscape looked beyond city limits in his proposal Logistical Ecologies. It envisions leveraging Chicago's status as “the crossroads of intermodal freight” to promote growth across northeastern Illinois. He aims to do this via combinations of improved and expanded railways, warehouses and distribution centers.

Sean Lally

Sean Lally

Finally, for now, Sean Lally is founder of Weathers, a design firm that explores how different forms of energy can be harnessed to promote sustainable architecture. He delivered a presentation on Second Sun – a park with elements that interact with various forms of energy they encounters. A bit esoteric perhaps, but like each of the presentations, Alternative Scenarios left attendees eager for more and enthusiastic about further Biennial engagement in the weeks and months to come. Stay tuned...

A senior editor with BuiltWorlds, the author will be reporting frequently on CAB. 

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