Sep 29, 2017
THEME: Learning, Point of View

River Rooms and Six Corners: An Explorative Summer with the 2017 Chicago Intern Class

The Action Learning Project (ALP) is a Perkins+Will initiative for our summer interns to explore cross-disciplinary work and research solutions to problems faced by our local Chicago community. In 2017, we provided our interns with four hours a week over the course of 10 weeks, with the group collaborating on two real-time prompts for exhibitions associated with the 2017 Chicago Architecture Biennial. With the design challenges guided by dedicated lab liaisons from the Perkins+Will Research Labs, the interns left having a stronger relationship with the Chicago urban community, a better understanding of how we conduct research and site analysis, and a more comprehensive understanding of how to operate within a multi-disciplinary practice.

The intern’s first summer project was “River Rooms,” asking them to take a deep dive into exploring the Chicago River Edge Ideas Lab. The lab is part of an exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Biennial and is hosted by the City of Chicago Department of Planning & Development and the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC). The lab challenges nine architecture & design firms based in Chicago to reinvent three different sites along the Chicago River.

To start, the interns were divided into teams to examine the main and south branches of the river and conduct an experiential, qualitative assessment. Their findings honed in on existing access points, amenity spaces, boat launches, natural versus engineered river edges, and future riverside developments which might impact the three Ideas Lab sites. In utilizing the Chicago Water Taxi to explore the sites from different angles along the river, the group developed a robust end product outlining their observations from 21 different segments along the river:
With each team assigned five or six segments like the one below, the interns were able to discover what an urban design analysis entails – a key step in the design process that influences and informs buildings and interior spaces later on. It also allowed the group to get fundamentally acquainted with the city of Chicago, with their collective voices in architecture, design, urban planning, and branded environments all contributing to a thorough examination of the segments. In turn, the interns were also able to provide our design teams with crucial site details to spark fresh, in-depth dialogue about how our firm approaches the Chicago River Edge Ideas Lab, and the city of Chicago as a whole.

The second project the intern group undertook was “Six Corners” – a community-focused, urban design challenge driven by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (and also a Biennial exhibit). The Six Corners lies within the Portage Park neighborhood – northwest of downtown – in an area ripe for transformation. The project asked the interns to think deeply about what it means to create impactful public spaces, then respond by putting forth urban design concepts for a “parklet.” A parklet, common in big cities, is a sidewalk extension providing more space or amenities for people using the street. Interns could employ any design tool they wanted to articulate their concept via sketching, modeling, animation, etc. with the only mandate being that it needed to connect with the community somehow.

Upon the intern group making site visits and researching the history of the Six Corners (on their own or with others), several parklet concepts came to fruition – four of which are highlighted below:

“Grow” by Amanda Ko

With the shape inspired by various works of Frank Gehry (notably the BP Bridget connecting Millennium  and Maggie Daley Park in Chicago), Amanda employed a serpentine shape along the sidewalks of the Six Corners to revitalize the streets and bring people together. The organic form is composed of lattice, representing the stitching together and growth of a neighborhood.


“Portage Patterning” by Zoe Storch

This concept extrapolates a section of a canoe to create a ripple-like pattern. Zoe borrowed from Portage Park’s retro roots by using subtle vintage patterning from “atomic age” signs. Using this palette, Zoe exploded the canoe parklet design, combining the repetition of the graphic pattern with the idea of “portaging.” A unique component of the concept is a weight sensor in the bench which when activated cues neon lights to go on, making for an interactive and safe environment at night.

“Cubed3” by Mayhen Ondo

Inspired by Chicago’s city grid, this concept creates modular seating and respite spaces for walkers, runners, bicyclists, and more. Uniquely, the Six Corners boasts three major streets, each of varying characteristics, which oftentimes compete with one other. This concept counters that disconnect by utilizing the rigid geometry of a cube (symbolizing Chicago) and deploying it in a variety of scales and materials (symbolizing Portage Park) to create an eye-catching dichotomy to enrich the user experience.

“Slide” by Sierra Heckman

Framed as a public installation showcasing community artwork, this concept is a shaded respite area during the day, and a light-up street experience at night. Using a representative number of six, these half-dozen set of “lanes” create a cantilevered shelter with artistic murals on the exterior panels. This element invites people inward with the panels being paintable surfaces that from one angle displays the artwork as a whole, but from another angle appears cut into pieces. Underneath the platform, lights are assembled to create a beacon in the evening in order to extend the concept’s use into the night hours. Sierra also provided choice for the user to decide between family-style sitting environments or sliding the seats apart for more independence. This also allows users to adjust and adapt to sun versus shade, thus interacting with the parklet in a variety of ways.

Where our interns excelled was in their innate curiosity of analyzing the cultural fabric of Chicago, and successfully incorporating the crucial neighborhood “layers” into their approaches. What the ALP experience hopefully gave them was a new knowledge base of the A/E/C industry, and an understanding of how multiple disciplines can come together to approach and solve complex design challenges, while infusing the community voice into civic-minded projects.

Here’s to Chicago’s 2017 Intern Class!

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