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Ronald Gray-Cheape
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Chicago’s WMS Boathouse

by Ronald Gray-Cheape

Rowers are ruthlessly competitive individuals, so it is no surprise that in the land of the free, where capitalism as we know it now was born, rowing clubs are competing not only on the water but up the bank in the architecture of their boathouses. Contrast this to London. East of Waterloo bridge the riverside is stacked with gleaming new structures of steel and glass where a capitalist city of its own is still growing, but make your way upstream to the rowing stretch of the Thames through that north arch of Putney Bridge and, apart from Thames RC’s refurbished facade, you will pass little but deeply conventional drab 19th century boathouses.

On the Chicago river, boathouse architecture is becoming a genre of its own, with the glorious design opportunity presented by four new boathouses that are included in the master plan for the renewal of the city’s waterfront. The mayor has decided that rowing is to lead in the transformation of the river from sewage canal to a hub for recreation and water sports – its “next recreational frontier”. What better tools with which to drive change: architecture is a frighteningly powerful tool. As Steen Eiler Rasmussen says, “No other art is so intimately connected with man’s daily life from the cradle to the grave,” – with its ability to both enhance and destroy environments, and rowing, once you are involved, is frighteningly powerful in enhancing (and perhaps also destroying) your life.

The city of Chicago’s growth came from feeding off its river’s industrial offerings. An occurrence that those of us that row on tidal waters are accustomed to twice-daily, the Chicago River had “?its flow completely reversed 100 years ago so that instead of the effluent-laden water flowing into Lake Michigan from where the city’s water supply was taken, it ran into a series of canals that aided the burgeoning shipping industry. However, the affliction of residential and industrial pollution oozing from the urban grain into the waterways continued. The move for renewal has been spurred by a grant of almost $1 million from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The first of the four boathouses was the Ping Tom Boathouse by the Chinatown neighbourhood opened in June 2012. Studio Gang, who describe themselves as a “Chicago-based collective of architects, designers and thinkers whose projects confront pressing contemporary issues” and who have worked with post-industrial riverfront sites, were commissioned to design the next two.

The second, the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park, was opened on 19 October 2013. This is now the home of the Chicago Rowing Foundation (CRF) which, with its focus on youth rowing and adaptive rowing programmes, satisfies the project brief in widening participation and drawing Chicago’s population towards its freshened-up river. The boathouse’s saw-tooth roof pays homage to the city’s industrial past: a 22,620 square-foot rowing factory. On the approach, an oblique view shows an array of jutting silver peaks like wave crests on a turbulent ocean’s surface or from Saturday morning launch drivers on the RIVER. The rowers’ orthogonal riverward view, however, exposes more direct rowing references:

“The architecture is meant to visually capture the poetic rhythm and motion of rowing,” said Jeanne Gang, founder and principal of Studio Gang Architects.

While being taught to row, the ratio of recovery to drive was drilled into us by the mantra ‘pineapple, pineapple, pineapple CHUNKS’, and is cleanly echoed by the smooth fruity upward curving slope that then cuts down abruptly. The form was derived from the time-lapse motion of rowing (see rendering above).

The matte zinc cladding modulates the hues of river and sky and augments the warmth of the timber lining that is visible through wide cut-out apertures – surely a welcome sight after a long winter outing. There are two separate structures that, despite the project’s tight budget, share the rich warm ply lining. The boat storage building, unusually, is substantially naturally lit by daylight reflecting down through its factory-esque roof. Its neighbouring building, the two-storey field house, holds ergometer machines, communal space, an office for the Chicago Park District and row tanks.

Betsy Trevarthen, director of Chicago Rowing Foundation, sees the tanks as a key weapon in widening participation: “The use of the indoor rowing tank has been key to introducing both these populations to rowing in a safe and protected manner. It’s allowed us to be very hands-on with new rowers, adequately preparing them for the water.”

With the tanks on the ground floor, training on ergs is allocated to the first-floor level. Bashing up and down on an erg means discomfort, so it is most considerate of the architects to make this such a bright, airy space. It is from here that the Douglas Fir ply-lined roof form can be enjoyed; the structural truss shapes alternating between an inverted “V” and an “M”, creating flowing double curves, echoing water’s surface to carry those training up and down the slide. This reflects southern light into what the architects refer to as building’s “upper clerestory”… imagine an ergo clerestory rather than an ergo room! The timber-clad finish is like the smooth veneered underside of a giant Carl Douglas – the essence of craftsmanship. Ergos can be cleared so as to make it available for the community as an events space.

Trevarthen is delighted that, thanks to their facilities, “we have been able to offer more community programmes than ever before”. The roof form is also a part of the project’s environmental strategy as the high-level glazing allows natural ventilation and warms the floor slab of the structure in winter, and ventilates in summer to minimize energy use year-round.

At Clark Park membership has soared by 33% over the last year. Following its completion, Trevarthen is delighted with the club’s progress: “Our 2013/2014 season was a great success. Our lightweight women placed 11th at Nationals; varsity men seventh; varsity women eighth. A lot of the success can be attributed to the amenities of the facility (tank, erg room) which allowed our team to practice no matter what the weather was.”

The power and endurance of the growing numbers of rowers of the CRF training at the WMS Boathouse is fuelling the larger movement toward the ecological and recreational revival for the future of the Chicago River. It is a powerful living symbol of the enduring connection between city and river.

1 Comment

  1. Rowing Coach

    This is a fantastic boathouse and brings a much needed update to rowing facilities in the city. The tanks have already had an impact on the quality of rowing for the teams there. I would like to mention that this article leaves out the other team that calls this boathouse home. North Park University invested the most money in the building of the boathouse. North Park University is a founding member and has 1/4 of the total boat storage space as well as equal access to the other facilities. CRF and NPU share the boathouse, tanks and coordinate to maximize use. NPU is a DIV III NCAA women’s rowing team and club Mens program that has been rowing out of Chicago for the better part of 20 years. Don’t forget about them!


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