Blair Kamin on the Chicago Riverwalk

June 06, 2015
Chicago Riverwalk 11

The lat­est stretch of this already-pop­u­lar pub­lic space, expect­ed to open lat­er this week, con­sists of a mon­u­men­tal flight of steps between Clark and LaSalle streets that lets the city’s ener­gy spill down to the south bank of the Chica­go River.

Expect to see the peo­ple on those steps sun­ning them­selves, munch­ing on their lunch, hold­ing hands and tak­ing self­ies. They’ll be tak­ing in the river’s open-air the­ater of water, tour boats and sky­scrap­ers. But they’ll be part of the play, too. Peo­ple, after all, flock to pub­lic spaces to watch oth­er peo­ple, not just the scenery.

Yet the new sec­tions don’t just repeat the old ones. They raise the River­walk to a high­er lev­el of urban­i­ty, fur­ther­ing its trans­for­ma­tion from a hard-edged indus­tri­al water­front to a wel­com­ing post-indus­tri­al amenity.

The project is poised to become a sig­na­ture achieve­ment of May­or Rahm Emanuel, who financed most of it with a fed­er­al loan.

Dubbed The Riv­er The­ater, this new sec­tion of the River­walk fol­lows two oth­er just-opened blocks in what will ulti­mate­ly be a $110 mil­lion exten­sion of this prime pub­lic space. When three more blocks are com­plet­ed late next year, the project will cre­ate a con­tin­u­ous, 1 1/​4‑mile pedes­tri­an and bike path reach­ing from Lake Michi­gan to Lake Street.”

Chicago Riverwalk 39
Chicago Riverwalk 40

Designed by the land­scape archi­tects of Water­town, Mass.-based Sasa­ki Asso­ciates, with Chicago’s Ross Bar­ney Archi­tects, the River­walk is, at root, an engi­neer­ing feat, one achieved in col­lab­o­ra­tion with struc­tur­al engi­neers at Chicago’s Alfred Benesch & Co.

To bring pedes­tri­ans clos­er to the water, decades-old dock plat­forms were low­ered sev­er­al feet. With the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engi­neers sign­ing off, the shore­line was extend­ed 25 feet into the river’s rough­ly 200-foot-wide chan­nel. Land­fill brought in by barge was dumped between new sheet piles and the exist­ing shore­line. Dur­ing con­struc­tion, two of the barges sank.

For Sasaki’s Gina Ford and Chica­go archi­tect Car­ol Ross Bar­ney, the chal­lenge posed by a lin­ear space like the River­walk is to cre­ate a sat­is­fy­ing mix of visu­al con­sis­ten­cy and vari­ety. They struck this bal­ance in the new sec­tions of the River­walk, improv­ing upon a pre­vi­ous stretch of the pub­lic space that opened in 2009 when Richard M. Daley was mayor.

That sec­tion, chiefly designed by Barney’s firm and run­ning from east of the land­mark Michi­gan Avenue Bridge to State Street, has an appro­pri­ate­ly civic char­ac­ter, prin­ci­pal­ly expressed by a mon­u­men­tal flight of steps that leads down to Chicago’s Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Memo­r­i­al. Thin stain­less steel rail­ings lend the spaces a sub­tle nau­ti­cal character.” 

Read the col­umn here.
See the full project here.

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