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Fabric pavilion pays tribute to architect’s Plan for Chicago

Exteriors | November 1, 2009 | By:

Zaha Hadid’s tiny Burnham pavilion captures Chicago’s grand plans

For centuries, fabric pavilions have enlivened festivals and great events. Zaha Hadid brings a 21st century update to festive structures with a salute to one of America’s greatest architects and urban visionaries—Daniel Burnham. The lead architect for the 1892 Columbian Exposition (immense but also temporary), Burnham is best known for saying “Make no small plans.” His later 1909 Plan for Chicago with its regional planning perspective and exquisite bird’s-eye views of radiating Parisian avenues was anything but small.

A century later, Hadid’s sinuous pavilion (paired with a design from UNStudio) celebrates Burnham’s grand plan at the center of Millenium Park. Together the two structures are a study in contrasts. UNStudio’s pavilion is square and constructed of laminated wood with tongue-like openings that frame outward views of the great skyscrapers lining the park. Hadid’s tension-fabric pavilion is inward-looking, luminescent, and lightweight in feel — almost as though it were a floating cloud brought down to earth.

Sited along one of the great proposed diagonal avenues of Burnham’s plan, the pavilion’s aluminum structure metaphorically evokes a radiating pattern of city streets and boulevards. Tightly zipped around the frame, 24 fabric panels serve as an interior screen for a video installation by London artist Thomas Gray that explores Chicago’s past and future. Projected from one end of the interior and from a third source between the interior and exterior skin, Gray’s changing images recall the “urban fabric” of Chicago’s neighborhoods and the hopes of citizens today for the region’s next century.

If you watch the Pavilion’s time-lapse assembly video (see references below), the rapid installation seems well-rehearsed. Yet, this custom project proved anything but simple to install and suffered from repeated delays. With its long-term knowledge of fabric and structural technologies, Chicago’s Fabric Images Inc. came to the rescue as the second installation contractor.

An architecture graduate of the University of Illinois, Fabric Images’ Gordon Hill worked to coordinate the assembly of the structure’s 7,000 aluminum pieces and the efforts of Fabric Images’ top seamstresses who worked on-site in 12-hour shifts around the clock to ensure an opening by mid-summer. Working with an engineer, Fabric Images re-engineered the supporting trusses. “The ideal approach would be to take it back to the shop to rebuild it,” Hill says. But given that they needed to compress six months of work into 30 days, the company moved its entire crew onsite. “It was meeting Hadid’s architects on-site and asking them about their design intent that made all the difference,” Hill says. Each day he worked like a “short-order cook” to make detail sketches to solve immediate problems. “The focus was not on how we wanted to do it, but Hadid’s vision.” Working in public view, they opened the Pavilion by the end of July.

Zaha Hadid is emerging as a leading designer in temporary fabric architecture for everything from London’s Serpentine Pavilion to music festivals. Her Burnham project is remarkable as it captures Chicago’s great historical events and stories in such a small organic space. “Fabric is both a traditional and a high-tech material whose form is directly related to the forces applied to it — creating beautiful geometries that are never arbitrary,” she explains. “I find this very exciting.”

Frank Edgerton Martin is a contributing editor for Fabric Architecture specializing in design and urban landscapes.

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