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WMS Boathouse in Chicago by Studio Gang Architects

With its distinctive twisting roof, Studio Gang’s boathouse embraces Chicago’s changing perception of the river

‘Whatever the advantages of a particular landscape,’ historian William Cronon has written, ‘people seem always to reshape it according to their vision of what it should be.’ According to Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis, his classic book on Chicago, high among that city’s ‘advantages’ is its branching river system whose tributaries meander north and south from the city’s centre. Canalised and dredged into a fluvial transport artery since the middle of the 19th century, it would be difficult at present to identify any purely natural or manmade features of the Chicago River system. What you experience along its banks isn’t a mere second nature but at least the third or fourth in a seemingly perpetual restructuring of the city’s relationship to its riparian setting.

Early Chicagoans envisioned their city as the hub of a trading empire encompassing nearly all of the Midwest United States, and thus transport and industry have been the dominant forces on its riverfronts right up nearly to the present. The latest of numerous re-visionings has come with current Mayor Rahm Emanuel, one of whose ambitions has been to reclaim the riverside as what his administration calls, in a magnificently pregnant phrase, a ‘recreational frontier’. The river, for Emanuel and his Park District team, should be a site for enjoyment and exertion through sport, not the exclusive province of polluting factories and their docks.

WMS Boathouse Studio Gang site plan

Site plan - click to expand

Two city-owned boathouses designed by local architecture firms are the signature projects aimed at bringing about this shift. Johnson & Lee Architects designed the first in Ping Tom Park near Chicago’s Chinatown neighbourhood. Studio Gang Architects designed its counterpart, the WMS Boathouse at Richard Clark Park on the river’s North Branch. Two more are planned, one of which has also been designed by Studio Gang and will begin construction soon.

Studio Gang and their figurehead, Jeanne Gang, have been engaged in environmental advocacy focused on the Chicago River for several years, and they along with their sometime collaborators at the Natural Resources Defense Council see increased recreational use of the river as a means to inculcate public sensitivity to water quality issues. Their efforts, which culminated in Gang’s 2011 book Reverse Effect, is said to have influenced the Emanuel administration’s decision to prioritise the river.

What is called the WMS Boathouse is in fact two adjacent structures that are similar in scale and material but differ in programme. One is a single-level boat storage and rental facility, while the other is a fully conditioned, two-storey indoor sports building containing fitness equipment, locker rooms and public lounge space. In addition to acting as a storage shed and training centre for many of the city’s crews, the complex also serves as headquarters for the Chicago Rowing Foundation, a group whose remit complements the Emanuel administration’s efforts.

WMS Boathouse inline

Between the two structures is an open court that serves as a staging area for canoe and kayak rentals as well as a gathering space for events. All paving in this court and across the rest of the project is permeable, one of several strategies that enabled Studio Gang to handle all stormwater on site and thereby take pressure off the city’s outdated sewer system.

The palette is restrained, as all materials had to meet the Park District’s exacting durability standards. Two faces and the roofs of each building are clad in lapped slate shingles, and perpendicular walls are of zinc. The slate is treated as a continuous origami-like wrap with few if any right angles. Each building’s east and west sides follow a zigzag path, mimicking the geometry of M- and V-shaped roof trusses. Steel structural members – painted a Mies-like matt black in the storage building and bright white in the sports building – are exuberantly revealed on the interior.

The sports building is a cleverly arranged cubic volume whose primary spaces are a rowing tank and large fitness room for ergometer training. Through glass walls, both of these spaces face toward the river’s edge. Outside these practice spaces, informal rest areas are tucked into corners and tacked onto walls, offering rowers ample space to unwind alone or in groups. Colourful stencilled murals adorn several of the sports building’s walls. The most delightful, which lines a meticulously contorted public stair, depicts orange life jackets abstracted into a sort of wallpaper pattern.

‘Natural amenities like the Chicago River, the architects have asserted, are best experienced not through distanced contemplation but through direct physical engagement’

Yet the signature gesture here is undoubtedly the dramatically twisting roof profile. In addition to lending the building a distinctive sawtooth profile, this variegated roof also opens south-facing clerestory windows to light and ventilate the interior of the storage shed and provide passive solar heating in cooler months. Studio Gang cites Eadweard Muybridge’s stop-motion analysis of rowing technique as the formal inspiration for this aspect of the design. Rendered in steel, stone and wood, the rower’s oar motion was a clever way to dress up an otherwise utilitarian building.

Racing shells have largely been built of fibreglass or other composites for decades, but heritage boats were of cedar and comparable lightweight woods. The boathouse’s twisting ceiling, in reference to this tradition, is clad not with hardwood planks but instead thin, pliable plywood. Faced for budgetary reasons with low-grade panels of inconsistent coloration and rife with flaws, Studio Gang chose to embrace this constraint, even drawing attention to the plywood’s fillers by painting them gold in the sports building. Instead of causing it to appear cheap or inelegant, these biscuit-filled flaws thereby enliven the ceiling and wall surfaces.

Such enlivenment of otherwise banal surfaces is one of Studio Gang’s most common design strategies. This is often accomplished, as at the boathouse, by rethinking conventional construction techniques or decontextualising traditional material treatments. When successful, this strategy yields uncommon delights like the fluidly shaped balconies of the firm’s deservedly lauded Aqua Tower. When taken to an extreme, it can lead to a riotous conflict of contrasting textures and colours, as in their recent Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College (which is, consequently, the firm’s most Koolhaasian building to date).

WMS Boathouse Studio Gang section

Section AA

A brief digression into site history can enrich our reading of the boathouse’s plywood surface and its symbolism. The complex is built on the location of the fondly remembered Riverview Amusement Park, which was demolished for redevelopment in the late 1960s. One of Riverview’s signature entertainments was the Flying Turns, a bobsled-like coaster that ran a steeply banked course built of cypress planks. Reclining cosily in two-person carts, coupled Flying Turns riders were tossed about on its glossy surface by gravity and clever design. While the two are far from identical, there is a certain visual rhyme between this twisting wooden surface and Studio Gang’s specked plywood ceiling.

In a way, the two forms of recreation represented by these surfaces – the amusement park and the rowing crew – illustrate a changing attitude toward relaxation and physical exertion in American culture. On the one hand is a relatively passive, thrill-seeking, escapist mode. On the other is an active sporting mode that depends upon teamwork and long-term dedication. Such a dramatic change in attitude will inevitably impact how people imagine their urban environment. That Rahm Emanuel has made the river a point of emphasis shows a building momentum.

With an effortless, everyday kind of eloquence, this change has been materialised in a wooden ceiling at WMS Boathouse. Natural amenities like the Chicago River, the architects have asserted, are best experienced not through distanced contemplation but through direct physical engagement. In these twisting surfaces, Studio Gang Architects have embodied this transformed urban imaginary in dramatic form.

Flying turns

Flying Turns ride installed at Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition, 1933. The ride was later moved to Riverview Amusement Park on the Chicago River at the current site of WMS Boathouse. Postcard. Collection of John Chuckman,

WMS Boathouse

Architect: Studio Gang Architects

Structural engineer: Matrix Engineering Corporation

Civil engineer: Spaceco; (river) AECOM

Landscape: Terry Guen Design Associates

Photographs: Steve Hall at Hedrich Blessing

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