- Roger Schluntz, FAIA (Chair), School of Architecture and Planning, University of Mexico
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The much-anticipated final phase of the Chicago Riverwalk is complete after years of planning and construction
It has been over a decade since Chicago began to redevelop its downtown riverfront, with Ross Barney Architects and Sasaki leading the design. With the recent completion of Phase III, the new mile-and-a-half public park known as the Riverwalk is now open. Divided into separate “rooms” between the famed bascule bridges, the Riverwalk provides a series of new programs for the downtown.
While the dream of swimming in the Chicago River is still far from reality, Chicagoans are now able to get closer to the river than ever before. Since the completion of phase two, the Riverwalk has become a favorite gathering space for downtown business people at lunchtime and a weekend hotspot for tourists. New restaurants and bars provide outdoor seating along the water, while kayaks can be rented for those looking to get up close and personal. A grand staircase-ramp between upper Wacker Drive and the river, known as the River Theater, can often be found filled with people sitting, reading, exercising, or simply people-watching. Those with their own boats can pull up to multiple tie-ups, drawing many large yachts from Lake Michigan. Part of phase three includes large floating planters, as well as one of the most anticipated additions to the Riverwalk, a large interactive water plaza.
A major challenge in realizing the continuity of the Riverwalk was connecting the separate rooms. The seemingly simple task was made more complicated by the fact that pedestrians frequently pass under the bascule drawbridges, whose permeable decks see some of Chicago’s heaviest traffic. In order to separate the public from the mechanics of the over one-hundred-year-old bridges and shield them from any falling debris from the road above, Ross Barney Architects designed canopies to cover the floating paths between the rooms. These canopies are wrapped in metallic paneling, reflecting the dappled light off of the water.
Along with Ross Barney Architects, a large team was brought together to realize the project, including Chicago-based landscape architects Jacobs/Ryan Associates, with Massachusetts-based Sasaki acting as prime consultant. Outside of the design, Friends of the Chicago River and Great Rivers Chicago advocated for the Riverwalk. Both groups are dedicated to remediating the river, with a goal of a clean, swimmable river by 2040.
Ever since the opening of the first sections of the Riverwalk, the new park has been showered with praise and awards. This year, AIA Chicago gave the Riverwalk with its highest honor, a Distinguished Building Honor Award. In addition, the project was awarded the 2012 Divine Detail Award by AIA Chicago, the 2010 Architect magazine “Move” Citation, and AIA Illinois’s 2007 Daniel Burnham Award, among others. Most recently the Riverwalk was awarded The Architect’s Newspaper’s 2016 Urban Design Award.
2016 Best of Design Award for Urban Design: Chicago Riverwalk, Phase 2 by Ross Barney Architects and Sasaki Associates
Commissioned by Chicago’s Department of Transportation and designed by Ross Barney Architects and Sasaki Associates, the Riverwalk transforms derelict urban infrastructure into a one-and-a-half-mile-long civic space, creating an activated riverfront in the heart of Chicago. Each of the project’s three phases takes on the form and program of a different river-based typology: marina, cove, and river theater. With its wine bar, kayak tours, boat docking services, water taxi stop, and dynamic public programming, the Chicago Riverwalk has virtually become the city’s outdoor living room.
Engineering Consultant Alfred Benesch & CompanyLandscape Architects Jacobs / Ryan Associates Granite Coldspring Operable Storefront Solar Innovations
Honorable Mention, Urban Design: Boeddeker Park
Architect: WRNS Studio Location: San Francisco, CA
After poor design additions earned this small inner-city park the moniker “Prison Park,” the Trust for Public Land and the City of San Francisco teamed up with WRNS to create a new park and clubhouse that serves as a model of civic engagement, inspiration, resource conservation, and adaptability, while addressing the community’s needs.Honorable Mention, Urban Design: Positioning Pullman
Architect: Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture Location: Chicago, IL
Now a neighborhood of Chicago, Pullman dates to 1880 and is the country’s first planned industrial community. Following its 2015 designation as a National Monument, a wide range of experts came together to launch Positioning Pullman, a collaborative ideas workshop to help Pullman grow into its new role and prepare for increased tourism.
Few people, architects or otherwise, have thought about the Chicago River as much as Ross Barney Architects. The firm’s experience includes the ever-growing Riverwalk in Chicago’s downtown, studies for the river as a transportation corridor, and extensive time spent working with the city on major infrastructural projects. When given a charge to propose a speculative project for the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s 50 Designers, 50 Ideas, 50 Wards exhibition, it took the chance to expand on a project that had been floating (pun intended) around the office. The result is an urban natural space where there is currently a smelly abandoned channel in the city’s Little Village neighborhood.
The South Side neighborhood is one of the most underserved, in terms of public space, in the entire city. Even worse, the neighborhood has the Collateral Channel, which once connected the natural channel of the Chicago River to the Shipping and Sanitation Channel. The natural Chicago River no longer exists, so the stagnant body serves no one. As the canal is no longer used, it is no longer dredged, which has led to its polluted bed having a severe methane-leeching problem. This, in turn, has prompted the local nickname of Ass Creek, due to the intolerable smell that bubbles up and wafts over Little Village.
Ross Barney Architects saw more than just a putrid nuisance in the Collateral Channel, though. Instead, the office took the opportunity to connect to a project the Chicago Department of Transportation is already spearheading called the Little Village Paseo. The Paseo is planned to be a linear park that will take the place of a former rail line through the neighborhood. So Ross Barney envisioned turning Ass Creek into Ass(et) Creek, a place where the community could directly interact with the river. Ass(et) Creek proposes to continue the Paseo to the river via the channel.
Though Ass(et) Creek is a speculative proposal, the work on the channel and the movement toward the river is already beginning. The city has started to pump water through the channel, and other studies have been done in an attempt to counteract the smell. Yet if anyone has experience with working with the river in Chicago, it is Ross Barney. The office has spent well over a decade working the city’s Riverwalk, navigating the politics and construction issues associated with building in water.
Ross Barney Architects see Ass(et) Creek as larger than just a luxury amenity. The big picture includes bringing access to clean recreation and athletic spaces to an area that needs it. From there, the firm imagines a new water-taxi stop at the site that would provide the neighborhood with a direct connection to the downtown. The relationship of Chicagoans to the river would be quickly reversed from odorous disdain to point of pride.
The vision of a Chicago River that is clean enough to swim in is shared by many, including the mayor and even President Obama. Though that day might not be right around the corner, it is coming, and Ross Barney Architects is ready to give everyone a place to jump in.
This article was part of our Oct. 12 issue which focused on how water is shaping today’s landscape architecture and urbanism. Communities face deluges and droughts—for some, the stakes can be survival itself, but others see opportunities for decadence. To explore these stories from around the U.S. and the world, click here.