Big Ideas, Murky Presentation

Big Ideas, Murky Presentation

A proposal by Sabatu Dennis.
Courtesy Bridgehouse Museum

McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum
376 North Michigan Avenue
Through August 31

Waterline, an exhibition of proposals for redeveloping one segment of the Chicago River, is chock-full of interesting ideas. But unless you’re well versed in deciphering the kinds of materials architecture students prepare for their studio projects, you might have some difficulty discovering them.

The show is a product of an innovative program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) that encourages its students to look for challenges well outside the confines of its storied Yard. As Skidmore, Owings & Merrill Urban Design partner Philip Enquist explains, GSD invites architects throughout the world to come to Cambridge and pitch their ideas for an on-site, concentrated design studio experience. He brought the concept for a re-imagining of the river’s south branch, and twelve students—a mix of architects, landscape architects, and urban planners—signed up.

Enquist says the students spent four days in Chicago for site visits and meetings, and each presented an solution that addressed a problem in one or more of three areas: the river’s economy, its ecology, and its culture.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to judge most of them based on what they’ve presented on the single banner they’ve been offered to display at the museum. Architects don’t always recognize that most of the world doesn’t think as visually as they do, so when they’re presenting projects to the general public, they often fail to offer any supplemental explanation of what they’re proposing, and the results can be frustrating.

A proposal by Adriana Chavez.

Which is not to say there isn’t a lot worthwhile in the show. Even the projects that seem totally underdeveloped offer hints of something challenging and provocative. Roger Weber’s City of Rhetoric proposes a zoning-based scheme to promote residential and commercial growth through development of “non-spatial conceptual goals for the riverfront.” It’s unclear, however, what that means.

Some of the projects are much more specifically explained, although their boards leave a lot of questions unanswered. William Dibernardo’s proposal for fish farms that simultaneously provide economic development and address a potential ecological nightmare—the Asian carp invasion—is intriguing, but how will it work? Nina Chase’s concept for development of a Slip District that will create an industry based around water is similarly thought provoking, but overall environmental conditions along the river’s south branch seem to make both projects impractical.

The best of the projects are ingenious, easy to grasp, and actually conceivable. Stephanie Saltzman’s proposal for Wolf Point, including a new bridge across the river and a rapid transit bus line, imagines a completely novel transportation artery that really follows the river’s flow. The most ambitious presentation is Aleksandr Nizhikovskiy’s plan to use the now-vacant U.S. Post Office spanning the Congress Expressway as an academic/ research link between the river and the University of Illlinois–Chicago campus and includes a park property built above the city’s famed Circle interchange. While audacious, it doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility if executed, and in focusing on the intersection of Congress and Halsted streets, it symbolically carries out one of the prime unrealized aspects of the famed Chicago Plan of 1909.

All of the projects could benefit from a more detailed presentation of the students’ proposals. Enquist says the projects will be repackaged for an exhibition later this year at Chicago Architecture Foundation. Let’s hope they have the opportunity to do so then.