Tectonics of the Ideal Kiosk

AIA This Week Ι Aug. 7, 2015 Ι The winner of the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s Lakefront Kiosk Competition reinvents Mies for the Midwest’s metropole

For the thousands of visitors to this fall’s Chicago Architecture Biennial (sponsored in part by the AIA), and for residents themselves, Chicago is still Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s city. The German émigré’s stern-faced, steel-beamed skyscrapers marched out of Chicago and into surrounding provincial towns across the continent, defining the architecture of a city he adopted late in life. For the biennial’s Lakefront Kiosk Competition, the winning team asked what Mies’ legacy might look like if his questions about structural lightness and modern materials had been answered with wood rather than steel and glass.

Ultramoderne, a group of Rhode Island School of Design professors, proposed a winning designed called Chicago Horizon. Comprised of Aaron Forrest, AIA, and Yasmin Vobis, in collaboration with engineer Brett Schneider, they were selected from an international group of 400 entries. Starting with Mies’ “explorations of flatness” (as Vobis said) and long-span structures, the team wanted to solve the same challenges Mies grappled with a generation ago but with a far more sustainable and affordable material: wood. Chicago’s design legacy of strong, simple materials and solutions that take pride in marrying aesthetics with structure egged them along every step of the way. “[It was] a great opportunity to not only explore this architecturally, but also to explore it in a context where the interaction of structure and architecture is really so vital, given that the wood is both structure and exposed,” said Schneider.

The $75,000 kiosk, which during the biennial will house an architecture lending library that can be transitioned into retail vending, is situated under a square 56-foot roof. It’s made of the largest dimensions of cross-laminated timber commercially available. This engineered wood product, more common in Europe but virtually unexplored in North American, is made by gluing together multiple layers of small-section lumber with alternate layers rotated 90 degrees ​to form much larger panels. The resulting composite in this case is only 8.25 inches thick but spans as far as 30 feet from column to column, making it similar to, but much stronger than, plywood. Thirteen glue-laminated wood columns hold the structure up, arranging themselves to support two sections of chain-link fence held in tension to enclose the library and an observation deck.

Virtually transparent, the chain-link fence offers a witty riff on Mies’ ideas about minimalist structural honesty, and nods in the direction of Frank Gehry’s, FAIA, Gehry Residence in Santa Monica, Calif., where chain-link is used to knock residential architecture off its pedestal with resounding indifference. The chain-link will also host a series of LEDs that will model each day’s sun-and-moon cycle, presenting a soothing and welcoming show even while the kiosk is inactive.

Beyond the twinkling light show, a sense of informal playfulness comes from the kiosk’s childlike simplicity. It’s only a mild exaggeration to say it consists of 14 pieces of wood and some fencing. The perfectly flat roof plane is an obvious visual allusion to Mies’ rectilinear steel beams and glass spans, and it also references Chicago’s punishing lack of natural topographic diversity and its man-made vertical showstopper: the city’s skyline. From the observation deck, Chicago’s thicket of world-class tall buildings are reframed and put on a visual pedestal.

During the biennial, the kiosk will be located in Millennium Park, which will give the event a foothold in the celebrated public park opposite the event’s main exhibition space, the Chicago Cultural Center. After the biennial, the kiosk will be moved to a lakefront park.

Biennial artistic director Sarah Herda wants the kiosk to “create a built legacy of the biennial.” She said that simple structures like pavilions and kiosks can communicate that “design and architecture is applicable at all scales.”

Herda and co-artistic director Joseph Grima also commissioned a kiosk from each of Chicago’s three architecture schools: The University of Illinois at Chicago’s kiosk, designed with Paul Andersen and Paul Preissner, subtly distorts perceptions with a massive vault-ceilinged parallelogram. Illinois Institute of Technology and Pezo von Ellrichshausen opted for an austere, and what they call “scale-less” ziggurat. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Kunlé Adeyemi will build a cantilevering limestone structure drawn from the masonry that once protected the city’s shoreline.

The need for easy mobility led the Ultramoderne team to conceptualize Chicago Horizon less as architecture and more as “a very large piece of furniture that can be assembled, disassembled, and reassembled,” according to Forrest—more IKEA than I.M. Pei and a not-so-subtle continuation of a classic Modernist’s (like Mies) daydreams of modularity perfected.

There are other daydreamers afoot in Ultramoderne’s proposal as well. Among their project renderings is a photo of a man and a woman reclining on a picnic blanket atop the Chicago Horizon roof. About a dozen feet away are a messy pile of the kiosk’s wood columns. If the couple (a woman reading; a man snoozing) look familiar, it’s because they’ve been cribbed from the Charles and Ray Eames’ equally playful and horizon-expanding 1977 short film Powers of Ten, which was set on the Chicago lakefront. “It’s the very simple idea of a very large square, the roof, a set of columns, and the public that comes and joins these elements,” said Vobis, “to create architecture.”