Reimagining the Spire site

Delve deeper into VOA’s Chicago Spire concept as featured in Chicago Magazine

In late 2014, a chapter closed on the long-running saga of the ambitious 150-story Chicago Spire project when a new developer took over the site at 400 N Lake Shore Drive and promised “an architecturally significant and thoughtful development befitting this premier location.” Chicagoans naturally wondered what might be next for the parcel adjacent to the intersection of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

VOA Chicago was invited by Chicago Magazine (alongside architecture firms Space Architects + Planners, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, UrbanLab, CLUAA and landscape architecture firm Hoerr Schaudt)to contribute a reimagined architectural concept for the former site of the Chicago Spire tower designed by Santiago Calatrava. Chicago asked each firm the same question, “What would you build on the Spire site?” VOA’s concept is featured in the February 2015 issue of Chicago Magazine

In early December, VOA Chicago responded to the invitation with an after-hours charrette open to the entire office. There, we debated adaptive reuse concepts for the Spire’s existing circular 78-foot deep cofferdam and the surrounding underutilized river front site (anything from a black box theater and bicycle storage facility to an indoor rainforest, green power station, or community gardens). In lieu of proposing  a vertical tower, the design team chose to study how a series of smaller pedestrian scaled buildings, placed horizontally across the site, would allow greater use and connectivity from the city to our celebrated lake front.

We talked about the idea of the site as a gateway from the city to the lake and examined options for reusing found spaces, linking to the nearby bike paths, and creating a sense of place that varied in scale and had multiple uses for Chicagoans and visitors. To further our design discourse, we broke into teams, talked, sketched, built concept models, and pinned up the work for the firm to review our progress.

Quickly our team emerged with a design concept for the spire foundation as well as several other designs opportunities for the remainder of the spire site. Over a three-day period (usually during the evenings) the team Brittany Faulman, Renato Gilberti, Jess Libby, Daniel Massaro, Rebel Roberts, Caleb Soto, Alex Tsaparis and myself developed a rendered site plan and renderings for an “Urban Island” featuring a pedestrian/bike bridge connecting to existing paths, a public market tucked under Lake Shore Drive, an arts center and an observation structure atop hydroelectric power and water filtration systems in the Spire’s void.

An Urban Island
Our design takes an isolated, incomplete and underutilized urban landscape and reimagines it as a destination and hub for cyclists and pedestrians traversing the Chicago waterfront. It gives Chicagoans and visitors a fresh vantage point from which to observe the city, the river and the lake. Our plan encourages engagement with Chicago’s lakefront culture, beckoning the public to enjoy this border region between city and its surroundings at a leisurely, healthy and sustainable pace.

The Bridge
The curving bridge connects this new destination to public transit and existing pedestrian/bike paths. It extends from the Lake Shore Drive bike path by Navy Pier to the southern bank of the Chicago River. It touches down on the urban island at various points allowing visitors to stop and visit the waterfront observation area, park and shop, dine or socialize at the market or ride through.

The Market
Our design reimagines the vast “dead space” beneath the elevated Lake Shore Drive as a public market area which visitors can pass through from either side. Like a community bazaar, the market draws locals and visitors and encourages them to come together and interact around food, the outdoors, even the arts on the urban waterfront. It’s a place one can ride to and purchase the day’s fresh vegetables or meet a friend for a refreshing meal.

The curvilinear form and color of the market structure contrasts with the surrounding neighborhood’s rectilinear glass and masonry buildings and celebrates the metaphor of the highways for both car and bike as the arteries of the city. The red metal ribs of the underbelly emphasize the waving motion of the form and suggest constant motion. The structure’s entryway beckons and funnels shoppers inside, guides them through a lively marketplace offering a mix of fresh produce, artisanal cuisine and open dining area until they arrive at Dusable Park.

The Cylinder
Rather than build another skyscraper, we’ve chosen to celebrate the vacuum left by the incomplete Spire project. “The shape developed around the idea of wrapping the Spire site with a form which encouraged movement both around the site and to the site from the surrounding area. Inspired partially by the Möbius strip we wanted to celebrate and encapsulate the hole, not as something to be filled in but something to be used as an asset,” says Jess Libby.

In our design vision, the leftover infrastructure takes on a role fitting 2015 and beyond. The cylinder serves as a container for education and observation and a machine for water management, filtration and green power generation. The cylinder contains an observation point for the rainwater cycle, has a massive water-filtering cistern which aids in stormwater abatement and even features small hydroelectric turbines which generate power from the overflow of the surrounding waterways. Above ground, it features a sustainable technology incubator and arts showcase within its curving, undulating organically-inspired form.

Dreaming big
Our team wanted to take this underutilized no-man’s land and transform it into a lively urban area, a place everyone gravitates toward and celebrates. The Urban Island acts a hub and resource for locals, fulfilling a need for a public space for gathering, commerce and socializing on the lakefront. This combination of elements may seem far-fetched, but it shouldn’t. Dreaming big can mean dreaming tall, but not always. Increasingly the viability and personality of cities is gauged by the liveliness and uniqueness of their public areas, the places where people of all walks of life cross paths and enjoy themselves. In many ways, the future belongs to cities that dream big.

Read Chicago Magazine’s The Spire online.


    This is totally inspired! It thrills me to see such innovation that dies not need to be scraping the sky. Very moved by this idea, its process of inclusive thought generation and its beauty!

    Your concept for the space is OUTSTANDING–an unique, exciting, and inspiring vision. As I read about it my enthusiasm for it soared higher and higher. I kept saying to myself as I read along–“YES! YES! — this is what needs to be done”! Good Job. What a great team you are.

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