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Exploring the challenge of balancing public amenity and openess on Chicago’s lakefront

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A look at several projects from Woodhouse Tinucci Architects transforming the city’s shoreline

Photo courtesy of Woodhouse Tinucci Architects

While Chicago’s lakefront is undoubtedly the city’s greatest public asset, striking a delicate balance between unobstructed open space and built amenities is an ongoing debate and an issue with which designers have become all too familiar. One firm in a unique position to comment on the seemingly paradoxical nature of Chicago lakefront design is locally-based Woodhouse Tinucci Architects. Over the last 18 years, the group has completed no less than nine projects along the Windy City’s lakefront ranging in size from small art installations to reimagining entire beaches.

"People treasure public open space because it’s public and open and try not to forget that, "explains Woodhouse Tinucci Architects principal David Woodhouse. "In our work in public open space, the open space IS the public amenity. So the building is as open — and as small — as possible. We always base our design strategy on maximizing the public space and minimizing the building." For example, when it came to Woodhouse Tinucci Architects' 2009 building at DuSable Harbor, the design team was able to ‘fold’ parkland up and over the new structure which resulted in a net increase of open space.
Northwestern University Sailing Center, Evanston, IL, 2014
Image courtesy of WTA

In addition to considering appropriate scale for projects in such sensitive locations, contextualization is also a key part of lakefront design. Much of Woodhouse Tinucci Architects philosophy for waterfront projects revolves around ‘framing’ what is already there — namely natural beauty. "So much of our work is built on sites that really don’t warrant buildings. The quality of the public parkland along the lake isn’t improved by buildings, and buildings can often interfere with those experiences. So we attempt to create work that frames and accentuates those moments as opposed to compete with them," elaborates principal Andy Tinucci.

Rosewood Beach, Highland Park, IL, 2015
Courtesy of WTA

This approach can clearly be seen in the revamp of Rosewood Beach in suburban Highland Park. "At Rosewood, the primary intervention isn’t a building at all but a boardwalk, or path – a journey," continues Tinucci. "The visitor services rest along this path, and the boardwalk folds up to capture that program. At the interpretive pavilion, the boardwalk becomes the pavilion which frames the view. The framing mechanism can also be seen at Rainbow Park or at Clark Street Beach."