WMS Boathouse


Hedrich Blessing Photographers

Located at one of the furthest outposts on the North Branch of the Chicago River, the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park is the surprising home to one of Studio Gang’s newest urban development projects.

Af Finn MacLeod

As Chicago experiences an upturn in built projects thanks to the buoyant return of the American economy, a wave of buildings has cropped up throughout the city’s downtown while few have been planned for the city’s outlying residential neighborhoods. Under the direction of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, small infrastructure projects like the WMS Boathouse have begun to catalyze previously unusable sections of the Chicago riverfront.

An elite training center for some of the city’s most avid rowers, the WMS Boathouse is the first of two facilities of its kind in Chicago designed by Studio Gang. Opened in 2013, the facility is the first of a total of four boathouses to be built at all corners of the Chicago River as a part of a larger civic initiative for riverfront development in the city. Home to the Chicago Rowing Foundation, the boathouse was realized using a combination of public and private funding, the majority coming from the Chicago Park District, an arm of the City of Chicago and the building’s custodian.

Challenged to provide a cost-effective, sustainable, flexible, and year-round facility, Studio Gang envisioned a simple and open concept building without compromising on form. Organized as two distinct buildings – two-thirds boat storage and one-third field house – the boathouse is a thoroughly bespoke response to a unique design challenge. Echoing the rhythm of a rower in motion, the building’s roofline undulates in a series of calculated gestures, each different from the next. The cumulative effect is that of fluidity and energy – an effect enhanced by the building’s transparency.

Occupying a previously neglected site, the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park serves as a node for the adjacent neighborhood. Clad in a muted grey facade and surrounded by an elegant landscape that incorporates native trees and vegetation, the building blends quietly into its surroundings. At night, the building glows like a lantern, its warm interiors serving as a beacon on the Chicago River.

Equal parts poeticism and practicality, the Boathouse’s design responds intuitively to Chicago’s varied climate. As Studio Gang Founding Principal Jeanne Gang notes, the building’s roof is constructed of a series of linear trusses, retaining the building’s unorthodox design and remaining within its strictly mandated budget. Each of the building’s nine roof structures provides ample opportunities for clerestory windows, allowing the building to benefit from natural ventilation in the summer months and daylighting in the winter, reducing its environmental impact year-round. Despite the challenge of a bitterly long winter, the building was designed as a large open-air facility with retractable windows and doors and is targeting LEED Silver certification.

Perhaps the most remarkable element of the WMS Boathouse, its interiors provide a dignified and multipurpose space for athletes to train in and outdoors. Clad in stained composite wood paneling, its soaring daylit spaces and minimal lighting evoke Scandinavian modernism in the heart of the American Midwest. Providing much-needed state-of-the-art training facilities for rowers of all skill levels, the center includes practice tanks, ergometer training rooms, a multi-use exercise space, and fully accessible training spaces for rowers with disabilities. Creating a vital new public outlet for river access, the new Boathouse also includes the addition of an extensive dock system for use by the club and community.

The first modern facility of its kind in Chicago, the WMS Boathouse at Clark Park is a high caliber training facility that activates the riverfront and responds to its surrounding landscape.  Discussing the project’s design inspiration, Jeanne Gang said: “We were able to do something that was economical, but through our use of technology, it was three-dimensional, sculptural, and at the same time,” says Gang, ” it introduced a new public to the waterfront and showed what the potential of that river can be.”

Studio Gang’s second Chicago boathouse, along the South Branch of the Chicago River, is scheduled to open before the end of 2016.