[September 6, 2012] - Where Chicago once buried its dead, a new habitat rethinks the balance between city and nature.
Ecosystem: all the organisms living in a particular area, as well as all the nonliving, physical components of the environment with which the organisms interact, such as air, soil, water, and sunlight.
So, here we are. Over a century-and-a-half after we supplanted a millennia-long ecosystem by dropping that first corpse into the ground, we've come back to where we began. The Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo bills itself as a "multi-sensory, interactive ecosystem . . . (a) newly naturalized oasis in the heart of the city." Its goal is no less than to make the South Pond's 14 acres of land and water, plants, amphibians, fish and fowl into the kind of complex natural habitat that Chicagoans had spent the last century wiping from the face of the city.
Chicago, more than most cities, is a manufactured ecosystem. Today’s Chicago can most accurately be thought of as a massive viaduct, raised up from the marshy, muddy land encountered by the first settlers. The river was straightened and redirected, and its flow reversed. What today we consider the lakefront is largely landfill expanding the original shoreline.
The ecosystem of Lincoln Park has undergone several transformations in Chicago’s relatively brief history. In the 1830s, it was the City Cemetery, an increasingly unsanitary resting place for everyone from the city’s elite, to Confederate prisons from Camp Douglas, to the nameless poor committed to Potter’s Field. (read the first half of the story in: Raising the Dead - Necropolis as an urban ecosystem.)
An urban ecosystem has its own cycles of generation and decay, fueled by increases in population and the quest for profit. Once at the edge of the Chicago, the City Cemetery became a barrier to expansion, and an obstacle to financial gain. The bodies were removed – mostly- and the land transformed into Lincoln Park, both to give the increasingly dense city a place to breathe, and to add to that density through lucrative residential development adjacent to an attractive park.
At the time of the creation of Chicago’s great parks, the region’s natural plants and landscape were dismissed by no less than Frederick Law OImsted as “forlorn of character”. The fabricated park ecosystem was one of artificial lakes, constructed hills, and non-native flowers. The animals who had long made the region their home were expelled, and replaced by a zoo, begun with a pair of swans imported from New York. It was the swan that became the emblem of the re-invented ecosystem, stressing beauty and elegance over authenticity. The found environment was to be overcome and discarded, too common and abject to merit appreciation.
At the end, Lincoln Park’s South Pond still had those popular swan paddleboats, but it was shallow and stagnant and starved of oxygen. Its inhabitants included carp and Koi goldfish discarded by bored pet owners.
When the pond was shut down in 2008 for a $12 million renovation to restore it as a natural environment, there were no lack of protest as the swan paddleboats were banished, and fish floated dead to the surface after poison was dropped to effect a controlled, comprehensive kill before the whole thing was drained. “Do dying fish feel pain?” asked one article, while another comment questioned the very idea of such a fabrication. “"How many trees were felled and fish killed so that we might attain a great sympathy for 'nature'?"
In June of 2010, the renovation of South Pond was complete. Now closing out its third summer, the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo has become one of the crown jewel’s of Chicago’s lakefront.
Nature herself took the first steps. Starting in 2007, the black-crowned heron, endangered in Illinois, began to return to Lincoln Park to breed. In 2008, 63 mating pairs of herons found protection from predators in the trees of the pond's island. The construction schedule was timed so as not to disturb them. By 2009, over a hundred birds were sighted on the island in the middle of the pond, and in the next year, there were so many birds they began to annex the rows of trees just south of the Boardwalk.. Last year, zoo biologists counted over 400 birds. “It’s kind of like an architect bird,” says architect Jeanne Gang, designer of the boardwalk. “It stays up all night and then builds nests, does architecture.”
If you approach it from the southwest, it's easy to think the pond is all boardwalk, as it spills out onto Michael's Landing, a large look-out point jutting out into the pond, donated by Beth Daley and Scott Ullem in memory of their infant son, which they saw as "a place of beauty to enjoy nature and its change, a place for people and families to come together."
This is where you can take in the full measure of the pond and its surroundings - the small island that's become a bird sanctuary, the steady stream of people moving across the low, flat Lester Fisher bridge in the distance to the left and, to the right, nestled into a backdrop of tall, stately trees, the remarkable Peoples Gas Education Pavilion, as open as an airplane hangar and as textured as a cathedral, modulating in character with the changing of the light. Even as, in Glenn Murcutt's famous phrase, it "touches the earth lightly", the pavilion serves as visual anchor for this gentle, expansive landscape.
Studio/Gang started off with a pond they described as "dirty, odorous, lifeless . . . a problematic manmade pond." Removing the concrete edge was the first step in bringing it back, allowing for a natural replenishing from the watershed. By returning plants to the edge, it both filters the run-off water and provides a habitat for animals. The pond underwent a major dredging. Once as shallow as three feet deep, the average depth is now twenty.
On the surface, you can see the water churning up from the eight aerators, sharing a single pumping station, that feed oxygen to the water, keeping it from going stagnant, and supporting life even under the winter's ice.The 5,220 feet of walkway that line the pond's perimeter, often atop rustic-looking wood trestles, has planks made of recycled milk jugs and other plastic, with some fiberglass for added strength. As the boardwalk meets the walkways of the adjacent zoo, the planks actually modulate in color from the darker walkways outside to the lighter color of the boardwalk, itself.
"We designed the path," says Gang, "to lead the visitor around the pond, taking them both over the water and within the edge plants. We worked with Geoff Deigan of WRD who helped select the correct plants, and the Chicago Park District arborist helped decide on which trees were kept, and which trees were at the end of their lifespan. We already knew to avoid the root structure of the trees - basically, all buildings should stay out a tree's 'drip line'", the tiny rootlets through which a tree takes up water.
In an interview with Time Out Chicago, Lincoln Park Zoo's Susan Dewar explained that the island was kept but reshaped to lure birds in greater number. Throughout the Boardwalk site, nearly 100 new native trees were planted, and new fish and wildlife were slowly introduced to the pond. At the time of the 2010 opening, Dewar wrote me that "originally, the chlorine levels were too high to introduce fish" but later in the year "we introduced some fathead minnows, as well as some pumpkinseed and bluegill."
This summer I found turtles basking in the sun, not on the logs left in the water for that purpose, but on a large rock.
Since 1908, the architectural anchor of South Pond has been the South Pond Refectory, by architect Dwight Perkins. A Prairie-styled pavilion with a 34-foot-high, skylit great hall and twin loggias embracing the northern end of the pond, the refectory closed as a restaurant in 1941, and spent the following decades doing duty as a fieldhouse, theatre and a storage warehouse before undergoing a $4,200,000 restoration in 1989 that brought it back to its original splendor. It was renamed Cafe Brauer, after the 1890's restaurant at 229-231 South State run by Paul and Caspar Brauer.
Now, the traditional lines of Cafe Brauer have a modernist counterpoint in Studio/Gang's striking Peoples Gas Pavilion.
"When we began the project," says Jeanne Gang, "I was thinking of boat construction and how wood can be bent in two directions. I started talking with some boat makers in Michigan and visited their shops. Ultimately, we found a fabricator to bend the pieces near the source of the wood."
The wood pieces, of Douglas Fir, "one of the strongest structural grade species" are bent in forms, "similar to the way you would make bent wood furniture. Layers of lamination are wetted and glued together. It's better for the environment because you're not cutting up large trees. More waste pieces can be used. We also had to have ASTM structural testing done because it's the first time this type of laminated veneer lumber is being used in a such a structure."
The wood structure is bolted to steel structures anchored to a concrete foundation. The fiberglas inserts use a UV inhibitor to avoid the yellowing and aging seen in older fiberglas. The design of the inserts stretch all the way back to a sketch of a tortoise fossil form Gang made when teaching at Yale in 2004.
There's a dialogue of textures between the gnarled expanse of tortoise-shell fiberglas inserts and the elegant near-gothic-tracery of the wood structure.
The pavilion was carefully sited. "We wanted," says Gang, "clear sight lines to the dock where the students will be, and to capture a view of the Hancock from inside. We wanted to keep out the hot western sun, so all together it ends up being about 10 degrees off a strict north/south axis." 17 and a half feet high at its peak, the view through the pavilion to the south frames the Chicago skyline.
I love climbing up the ridge of Stockton Drive and having the sweep of the Nature Boardwalk and Pavilion reveal itself below me. It invites, almost insists, on exploration, and time of day, time of year, the discovery will be slightly different. I've stood watching two iridescent blue dragonflies that looked like they were mating in flight, while a third flame-red dragonfly flitted back and forth as if flush with jealousy. I love the distinctive sound of the herons as they fill the trees and to follow their path in flight, to watch the fish pass by under the water, and the ducks and geese swim placidly along the surface, within the reflections of the trees and the glowing weave of pavilion, itselfThere is the ecosystem we found, the ecosystem we destroyed, the ecosystems we created, one, then another, in its place. Framed, on one side, by the infinity of the lake, and on the other, by the tight perimeter of man-made towers, the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park seems to lie suspended between these past and present, natural and manufactured ecosystems, intimating the possibility of still another, newer, urban ecosystem, a mediating zone of grace.