From Filth to Fun: Big Designs for the Chicago River

CityLab Ι Sept. 29. 2017

Until its direction was reversed in 1900, the Chicago River was such a receptacle for effluent and filth that it poisoned Chicagoans’ beloved Lake Michigan (from which they drew their drinking water). Then it was channelized and entombed in concrete. The river has long been the city’s forgotten waterfront.

But that’s steadily changing, as the last decade has seen sections of the Chicago River transition from what was practically an aboveground sewer to a world-class pedestrian promenade and public space, the Chicago Riverwalk.

With the Riverwalk, “we are at an inflection point in the same way that 100 years ago, Chicago decided its lakefront would be open and free, and fully accessible,” says Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “We are now at that point to reimagine what used to be our industrial highway as our new park and recreational space.”

Building on these initial successes, the city has solicited an adventurous set of ideas for future phases of the Riverwalk from a group of nine architecture and landscape architecture firms. The River Edge Ideas Lab exhibit opened earlier this month as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial.Participating firms include Adjaye Associates, James Corner Field Operations, Perkins+Will, Studio Gang, SWA, and SOM. Three other firms that have already worked on the Riverwalk and other riverside parks (Sasaki, Ross Barney Architects, and Site Design Group) also submitted ideas. The Ideas Lab was organized by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development and the Metropolitan Planning Council, and Ryan Gann of Ross Barney Architects designed the exhibit.*
 There is no money to build these plans. The goal is to gather public feedback (solicited online and at the exhibit) that can be incorporated into formal river design guidelines. Chicago Commissioner of Planning and Development David Reifman says that the exhibit will be used to “craft a set of consistent guidelines to make river access easier to navigate, and try to come up with a more integrated vision.”
The show is a slick, developer-focused counterpoint to the wild flurry of normcore imagery and models at the Chicago Cultural Center across the street, which houses the biennial’s main exhibit. The river ideas are sponsored by two developers with interests in the area. Related Midwest owns a massive (and empty) 62-acre parcel along the river, while 601W Companies holds the lease on the gigantic and shuttered Old Chicago Main Post Office a block away.The wetland parks, riverbank pools, and climbing walls in the proposals could be show-stopping amenities for whatever is eventually built in these mega-developments—and possibly tempt a certain Internet retail giant that’s looking for millions of square feet in a big city.

Airline Bridge

Each team offered ideas for three sites, all on the south branch of the river. The furthest south is near Airline Bridge, one of the hulking, dinosaur-scaled bascule bridges that dot the river, located along Related Midwest’s empty parcel.

Many designers opted here for naturalistic, planting-heavy wetlands and nature-scapes that continue the flow of the adjacent Ping Tom Park by Site Design Group (one of the city’s most dramatic and alluring park spaces).

Studio Gang’s proposal builds dense wetland habitats for fish and waterfowl, not unlike their Northerly Island Park. “It’s important to highlight the potential of sites like these to foster nature in post-industrial landscapes,” says Claire Cahan, Studio Gang Design Director, via email. “Studio Gang is interested in learning from nature, and how plants and animals can adapt to changing conditions.”
 Some proposals embrace this part of the river’s capacity for action and acceleration. One example is Ross Barney Architects’ “St. Charles Raceway” plan, which takes advantage of this section of the river’s straight path to create a venue for boat and swim races, with pedestrian bridges spanning the river like bleachers. (Chicago’s annual Chinatown dragon boat races launch from Ping Tom Park each summer.) Zip lines anchored to the drawbridges offer another invigorating way to engage the river’s infrastructure.
This sense of mechanical dynamism that’s so central to the river’s history as a site of industry is accentuated in Perkins+Will’s plan to install a circular river beach swimming hole (complete with sand) that filters and cleans water.
In this scheme, a pedestrian bridge retracts to pump river water into a densely planted wetland that absorbs and filters the liquid until it’s ready to fill a swimming bowl (separate from the rest of the river), as beachgoers lounge in the sand. It sounds outlandish for a river whose banks are walled off in concrete, but there’s historical precedent. “When [Jean Baptiste Point] du Sable settled in Chicago in the 18th century, there were sand dunes along the Chicago River,” says Perkins+Will urban designer Andrew Broderick.

Congress Parkway

The Congress Parkway site lies at the end of a dense knot of freeway overpasses and rail bridges where two of Chicago’s interstates intersect, and is the only publicly owned site of the trio. It’s a thorny, inhospitable place that only audacious changes could reorient away from cars and back toward people.

“Landscape can overcome infrastructure if you really are bold with it,” says Sasaki’s Gina Ford. Her firm’s plan starts with a 40-foot hill (an extreme elevation change for pancake-flat Chicago) packed with plantings that filter water before it’s poured back into the river, in a waterfall descending from a pedestrian bridge.

Ross Barney Architects’ ”Congress Filter” uses geometric repetition, deploying a series of ovular disks that clean the water pumped into them, stepping down and ending in a swimming pool that’s placed in (but separate from) the river.

Step by step, each stage of purification is made visible through the series of tiered disks: aeration and oxygenation, sedimentation platforms that separate solids from liquids, bio-filtration plants, and disinfecting UV rays. The process, so critical to the health of rivers and cities, is made completely explicit here. “People need a more graphic story than, ‘Wetlands clean water,’” says Ross Barney Architects founder Carol Ross Barney.

Civic Opera

The Civic Opera site is the least appealing in its current configuration, and because of this, the most fascinating to reconsider. One side of it is a sheer limestone cliff: the blank face of the 1929 Civic Opera Building. This imposing façade pushes redevelopment into the river in many of the proposals, with floating stages and audience seating that position the limestone wall as a media projection screen. (Intriguingly, SOM depicts the Civic Opera section as a stage-set for shadow drama, bright lights casting silhouettes across multi-tiered pedestrian walkways.)

With 150 miles of waterfront throughout Chicago, there’s a lot more of the river to be reclaimed for enjoyment. Once a functional piece of infrastructure, the river reflects a city that reveres calloused hands and sweaty brows more than picturesque artifice. And the more Chicagoans have gotten access to the river, the more they’ve learned that it speaks to their history in ways that even pristine Lake Michigan can’t match.