Planting the Hardscape

Planting the Hardscape

Plans for an aging Ludwig Mies van der Rohe plaza in downtown Chicago are not so much an update as a transformation. In renderings from Wolff Landscape Architects and Goettsch Partners, amoeba-like forms wrap around Mies’ black steel columns, bearing lush berms three to five feet high.

“We wanted to provide more circulation and programming,” said designer Ted Wolff. “But the main thing is the feeling. It should be more park than plaza.”

When landlord Reit Management & Research acquired the building in 2010 and 2011, they recognized the need for renovations. Water damage threatened parts of the structure as well as the terrazzo plaza linking East Wacker Drive and North Michigan Avenue. Stairs connecting the Water Street entrance with the plaza overhead had been closed years ago due to water damage, further obscuring an already underused gateway between Michigan Avenue and North Stetson Avenue to the east.

Since the stairs closed, high-rise construction has recast the area east of Michigan Avenue as Chicago’s “New Eastside.” As a logical link to Michigan Avenue, the restored plaza could serve as a new entryway to the neighborhood.

Although they share a public space, 233 North Michigan Avenue (whose entrance actually sits just east of Michigan on Water Street) and 111 East Wacker Drive span three floors. At 30 and 35 stories tall, the towers cast shade on the plaza for much of the day, creating a sense of coldness on the flat expanse.

“We feel these buildings are so powerful,” said Wolff, “but there are design problems, and they’re not going to be solved by praying at the altar of Mies.”

The landscaping features shade-tolerant plants like wild ginger, common periwinkle, ward’s yew, and apple serviceberry. A fire pit, free wifi, and movable, brightly colored furniture are among the plaza’s enticements to linger in what has been largely a throughway for office commuters. The design’s varied amoeba-like forms adhere to a rigid geometry with radii of 4, 8, 16, or 32 feet.

The landscaped forms rise three to five feet in the middle, high enough to obscure a seated person’s view and convey the coziness of a park. Movable furniture affords visitors a little control of where they sit and red pavers accent some portions of the concrete walkways.

The project announces its presence on Michigan Avenue with an LED-backlit “Illinois Center” sign placed where the building’s lower levels straddle Water Street. Renovations also include consolidating the Americans with Disabilities Act–compliant entrance with the building’s main vestibule on Water Street.

Construction is underway. A partial opening is planned for this winter. A full opening is planned for spring.