A glimpse of a bright green form caught my eye as I missed the driveway of the Ragdale Foundation estate north of Chicago. A red Ferrari was close behind my rental car, and I couldn’t slow down in time to make the turn. The 50-acre Ragdale estate is situated in the wooded Lake Forest community, home to some of Chicago’s wealthiest families. The green apparition I spotted was this year’s Ragdale Ring.
The Ragdale Ring is a temporary open-air theater designed each year by winners of the foundation’s Adrian Smith Prize. This year’s iteration, designed by Syracuse-based SPORTS, is entitled Rounds. Fittingly, the installation is an undulating arching ribbon creating a perfect 70-foot diameter circle in plan. Nestled in a clearing in the forested front of the estate, the piece ties into its surroundings with curving archways. The arches rise to different heights, forming varied elevated seating areas, passages to the center, and one large space designated for a stage. Each arch responds to different conditions around the site, such as the main house, the residency building, or an entry path. The mint green color is vibrant, yet complementary to its verdant surroundings.
Thanks to engineering assistance from Arup, the piece is constructed out of waffled framed plywood and stands with no visible support. Landscape architects Rosborough Partners prepared the site with subtle rises where the ribbon hits the ground—combined with a meticulous paint job, it is hard to understand exactly how the ring was built, even when standing close. The result is the appearance that the entire ring was brought as one piece, maybe dropped on the site by some playful aliens.
SPORTS is a design collaboration between architects Greg Corso and Molly Hunker, faculty members at the Syracuse School of Architecture. Corso, Hunker, and a small team lived at Ragdale for three weeks in order to construct Rounds. The Adrian Smith Prize provides a $15,000 production grant and Ragdale provides room and board for the entire team, who also takes part in communal dinners and has access to the property’s forest and prairies.
The Ragdale property was originally the country home of Chicago architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. Shaw was also the designer of the original Ragdale Ring in 1912. That first open air theater was specifically designed for his playwright wife. This year’s ring is the fourth since Ragdale initiated a program to reimagine the original in 2013. Now an international competition, it calls for designs that “explore intersections of architecture, sculpture, landscape, design, public art, and performance disciplines.”
Ragdale is not normally open to the public. The property is kept private to provide space for its nearly 200 annual residents to work without interruption. Fortunately, the public can experience Rounds in person—tickets are available to the public for a small number of performances throughout the late summer. The next of these will be a jazz concert August 18. What better way to finish a picturesque drive through Chicago’s mansion-filled north suburbs, than with a jazz concert in an uncannily mint green theater?