Department of Unusual Certainties [DoUC] recently completed a submission to the Network Reset, Rethinking the Chicago Emerald Necklace, competition hosted by Mas Studio and the Chicago Architectural Club. Participants were asked to look at the urban scale and propose a framework for the entire boulevard system as well as provide answers and visualize the interventions at a smaller scale that can directly impact its potential users. Through images, diagrams and drawings the work should express what are the soft or hard, big or small, temporary or permanent interventions that can reactivate and reset the Boulevard System of Chicago. DoUC’s proposal focused on filling Chicago’s Emerald Necklace with a framework of posts, beams, ropes and counterweights - to produce a pick-and-choose- method of program management. Images of their entry and a description can be seen after the jump.
Chicago’s Empty Necklace
At the end of the 19th century plans were made to connect 7 major parks in Chicago with a network of 26 miles of boulevards. The boulevards and parks would wrap around the city creating a so-called Emerald Necklace. The plan was largely successful and is still visible from satellite photos today. But while the waterfront parkland and the parks along the necklace have been heavily invested in and used, the boulevards remain for the most part empty – 26 miles of uninterrupted empty.
In January 2011 Mas Studio announce a new competition that challenges designers to re-evaluate the Emerald Necklace and the boulevard system. In all likelihood the competition is to be flooded with proposals for continuous urban agriculture, looped tramlines, landscape urbanism post-city deconstructions, and renewable energy farms. DoUC also throw their hat in the ring.
The Sadness Felt when Walking by an Empty Playground
Now that we have gotten people to the boulevard, what are they expected to do there? DoUC’s first impulse is to program the hell out of it. In the absence of anything to do, we want to give people everything to do. But is this the right tactic? Scans of Google Street View already reveal adjacent programs – playgrounds, sports fields, benches, tables – completely empty. Programmed amenities look great when they are being used – one snapshot away from being featured in a consultants “best practices” presentation – but are the poster child for misallocated investment when empty. An empty playground is sad looking. 26 miles of empty playground is incredibly sad looking. Furthermore, why should we clutter the boulevards with programmed infrastructure, when only a fraction of it might be used at any given time?
Designing Programmatic Uncertainty
This programmatic uncertainty brings us to the heart of a design concept that exalts uncertainty itself. What if people could pick and choose the kinds of infrastructure they wanted to use on the boulevards? What if there was a storage system so that amenities could simply be ‘put away’ when not used – clearing up the ground plane of the boulevard? What if this system could serve as a spectacle in itself, drawing people to the space?
String Theory attempts this through the creation of a physical framework to house moveable program infrastructure which can be freely used and not used by boulevard strollers. Posts, beams, pulleys, ropes, and counterweights work together to house a cacophony of infrastructure 3 meters above the boulevard. Chairs, benches, playground equipment, picnic tables, chess tables, ping pong tables, work stations, and whatever may be desired, are clipped onto ropes and hung above the boulevard until a user lowers them to the ground. The effect is similar to that of entering a bazaar or fair where goods clutter the ceiling, leaving the corridors free for circulation. When no program is being used a clear pathway is formed by the ropes of the counterweights. As more program is concurrently used, a tangled forest of ropes start to appear on the ground as a views to the sky above begin to clear.
Use and non-use of the available amenities manifests itself directly on the look and feel of the space as the configuration of ropes, objects and counterweights changes. In this way String Theory presents a figurative method of dealing with programmatic uncertainty by integrating a storage system that plays with the limited space of the boulevard.