Sasaki Associates, along with Ross Barney Architects, Alfred Benesch Engineers, and a broader technical consultant team, were tasked this year with creating a vision for the six blocks between State Street and Lake Street in Chicago. Building off previous studies, the team’s Chicago Riverwalk Concept Plan, which is currently in progress to be completed, provides the last, critical link between the lake, the city’s circulation, and the river’s urban branches.
Once a meandering marshy stream, the river became an engineered channel to support the industrial transformation of the city, making this riverwalk an instrumental design in the city. More images and architects’ description after the break. The Main Branch of the Chicago River has a long and storied history that in many ways mirrors the development of Chicago itself. Following the famed reversal of the river, in which the city reversed the flow of the Main Branch and South Branch to improve sanitation, urban planner Daniel Burnham introduced a new civic vision of riverside promenades with the addition of the Wacker Drive Viaduct.
For the last 30 years, the role of the river has evolved once again with the Chicago Riverwalk project—an initiative to reclaim the Chicago River for the ecological and recreational benefit of the city. The goal of embracing the river as a fishable and swimmable recreational amenity seemed impossible years ago given the river’s high levels of pollution. But today that vision is becoming a reality.
Recent improvements in river water quality and the increased intensity of public recreational river use signal growing life along the river, and demand new connections with the water’s edge. Heeding this call, the Chicago Department of Transportation began implementing the Riverwalk, completing portions of the system that include very successful new spaces like the Veteran’s Memorial Plaza and Wabash Plaza.
The task at hand was technically challenging. The team, for instance, needed to work within a tight 25-foot-wide permitted river build-out area to expand the pedestrian program spaces and had to negotiate a series of under bridge connections. Further, the design had to account for the river’s annual flood dynamics of nearly seven vertical feet. Turning these challenges into opportunities, the team imagined new ways of thinking about this linear system. Rather than an architecturally-driven path system comprised of 90-degree turns, the team re-conceived the path as a more independent system—one that, through changes in its shape and form, could drive a series of new programmatic connections.