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2016 MCHAP

Chicago Horizon

Ultramoderne + Brett Schneider

Chicago, IL, USA

September 2015


Aaron Forrest Yasmin Vobis Brett Schneider, Guy Nordenson & Associates


Animate Architecture (Architect of Record) Thornton Tomasetti (Structural Engineer of Record) Nordic Structures (Fabricator)


Sarah Herda / Chicago Architecture Biennial Abbot Bristow / Chicago Park District


Naho Kubota Tom Harris


The project was the winner, among 421 entries, of an open competition for a new lakefront kiosk commissioned jointly by the newly founded Chicago Architecture Biennial and the Chicago Parks District. The brief called for the design of a 200SF (18.5m2) structure that could function as an architectural folly during the Biennial exhibition, and later could serve as a commercial vending kiosk along the Lake Michigan waterfront. The purpose of this dual life was to simultaneously rethink the wasted resources that typically go into exhibition pavilions, and to put those resources instead towards the rehabilitation of the city's waterfront recreation areas. The requirements of the program were quite simple: the project needed to be largely prefabricated so that it could be assembled quickly and then disassembled and relocated at the end of the exhibition, and it needed to be flexible enough in its design to accommodate both exhibition and commercial programs.


The project is a public pavilion and commercial kiosk for Chicago's Grant park, situated between the city's downtown business district to the east and Lake Michigan to the West. It is situated just north of the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium, two important Beaux Arts landmarks. At the time the project was proposed, a final site had not been settled, so we knew that the section would be the only constant in the project. As such, the abstract flatness of the square roof responds to the horizontality of the lake and the plains of the Midwest beyond. Chicago's rich history of modern architecture played a significant role in the design process. In particular, Mies's experiments with flatness and the Eames' studies of scale in the film Powers of Ten informed the approach to the site. Working with mass timber technology and in close collaboration with a structural engineer, we saw an opportunity to rethink some of the city's experiments in steel in a new, sustainable material. Due to the short construction schedule, the entire project was designed as a kit of parts that was prefabricated in northern Quebec and shipped to the site to be built in the space of two weeks. Rather than tying the roof down to traditional foundations, it rests like a table on the concrete slab underneath and is weighted down by local limestone gravel on the roof. Ascending the steps through the opening in the roof, the white stone provides a new datum against which to view the skyline above and the horizon of Lake Michigan in the distance.


The design proposed a 56' square flat roof made entirely out of mass timber, aiming to provide as large a space as possible for the Biennial and the City of Chicago with a minimum environmental and economic impact. Through the use of sustainable, structural materials, the pavilion provides sixteen times more floor area than demanded by the competition brief. The kiosk was thus reimagined as a flexible space to catalyze social exchange and a truly public engagement with the city. The project was the result of a close collaboration between architects, engineers, and fabricators. As a result, the entire pavilion was designed and built in only ten weeks. Supported at only thirteen points, the carbon negative, mass timber structure is the first point-supported two-way wood roof built to date. The fin columns are distributed in a finely tuned radial pattern to respond to lateral loads and uplift; their orientation creates an order within the space and activities central to the pavilion while simultaneously directing views outwards towards the horizon. The expansive plane of the long-span roof is interrupted by only the structural columns and two chain link volumes stretched between roof and ground. The lateral reach of the roof recalibrates the experience of two extremes of the Chicago landscape: at ground level, the Lake Michigan horizon dominates, forming a line of symmetry between ground and canopy. From the viewing platform, the roof becomes a new artificial horizon, shutting out the foreground and emphasizing the vertical skyline above an abstract floating plane.

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