Monday, January 14, 2013

Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo

Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, by Studio Gang Architects, 2010

On a recent trip to Chicago a good deal of my agenda revolved around the work of Studio Gang Architects. I visited their studio, got a tour of the Radisson Blu at Aqua Tower, and visited the exhibition Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects at the Art Institute of Chicago. Much of it is documented in the Insight feature at World-Architects, but here I wanted to delve into another one of their projects I visited, the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo. Like many of Jeanne Gang's post-Aqua projects, the Nature Boardwalk has received a fair amount of press, but much of it centers on the open-air pavilion that sits on the east side of the pond. While I'm also guilty of honing in on the pavilion with my camera, here I'll discuss the larger plan for the pond as well as the design of the pavilion itself.

The name Nature Boardwalk should tip people that the project focuses on a linear path, one that follows the edge of the Lincoln Park Zoo's South Pond. The pond was created shortly after the zoo's founding around 1870, before which the land was a cemetery, as Lynn Becker describes. Over the years its hard, engineered edges and shallow bed contributed to the unhealthy nature of the oxygen-starved pond. Gang and her team of consultants, including landscape architect WRD Environmental, worked to transform the 14-acre landscape into "a native Midwestern, self-sustaining ecosystem, featuring an array of prairie plants and 100 new trees." The primary means to achieve this and increasing habitat for wildlife are via a "re-engineered pond with naturalized shorelines and depths that welcome wildlife." (Quotes from WRD website.)

Having lived in the area about 15 years ago, and not returning to Chicago since 2007, I was amazed by the change. Basically I did not recognize the South Pond. Its softened edges and snaking boardwalk completely changed the character of the place, making it resemble a piece of nature that predated Chicago's build-up rather than a human-made landscape. Walking the boardwalk is a great experience, as it zigs and zags among the plantings and sometimes juts out over the water. And the changes are not just visual, as the transformation of the pond has already increased the diversity of the place's wildlife, both for residents (fish, turtles) and migratory creatures (birds).

The pond has become a laboratory, a barrier-free zoo exhibit, and a classroom. The last is primarily served by the pavilion (technically, and unfortunately, the Peoples Gas Education Pavilion), which straddles the boardwalk on the east side of the pond. Gang was inspired by the form and related structural strength of milkweed pods. This inspiration can be found in the fiberglass domes that shield the 17-foot-high (at its peak) structure that is made from curved, laminated wood pieces bolted together. The alien presence sits on axis with the John Hancock building to the south, shielding the classes and others that use the space from the high summer sun. Openings at the base of the structure aid in natural ventilation across the space. The pavilion adds an exclamation point to the Nature Boardwalk, but more importantly it provides an excuse to stop for a while and take in the zoo's "return to nature."

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