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American Society of Landscape Architects


December 2004 Issue

Sundays in the Park with Bears
New landscape speaks to the aerial forms of Chicago's Soldier Field stadium.

By Allen Freeman

Sundays  in the Park with Bears Lawrence Okrent

The pointillist painter Georges Seurat gave his A Sunday on La Grande Jatte a frame of dots to mediate between his artwork and its wood frame, painted stark white. The Soldier Field campus on Chicago's lakefront, by Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture, Inc., is a little like Seurat's pointillist frame: an artful surround and a transition to the football stadium

The seven-person landscape architecture firm was asked in 2000 to plan the entire 98-acre Soldier Field campus, essentially rethinking all the spaces around Holabird & Roche's 1924 stadium, which was being remodeled by architects Wood + Zapata of Boston and Lohan Caprile Goettsch of Chicago.

Soldier Field stadium rises southeast of the downtown Loop, and its landscape is considered part of Lake Michigan's broad lakefront. "It isn't in Grant Park [a Beaux-Arts park designed by Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett in the early twentieth century]," says Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA. "It's part of Burnham Park, which, as you move south from Grant Park, is a much more fluid design. Ben Wood [of Wood + Zapata] said he wanted me to look at everything with a fresh eye." A Harvard-trained landscape architect who worked in Dan Kiley's office from 1984 to 1987, Schaudt is not averse to thinking architecturally. Even so, an old plan by the Holabird & Roche office, with everything axial and gridded, offered little inspiration. "I didn't have any interest in super- imposing two-dimensional, Beaux-Arts ideas," he says. "That would be more artificial than a free-form plan."

And so Schaudt approached the project with the intent of echoing "the power of the new stadium," as he puts it. His plans for the 98-acre campus—and especially the design of signature landscapes (17 acres, in total) close to the stadium—are as radical, in their way, as Wood + Zapata's renovation. His firm produced curvilinear roadways and naturalistic landforms. As a result, the landscapes relate not to the stadium's 80-year-old cast-stone colonnades, but rather to the swooping forms of the new glass-and-metal bowl that surmounts the old facades.

The Chicago Park District owns the land and the stadium, home of the NFL Chicago Bears since 1971. Schaudt's site, created a hundred years ago at the edge of Lake Michigan with debris excavated from a downtown railroad freight tunnel, was bordered by roadways and established landforms. The grounds of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair extended into the site; however, no identifiable traces of the fair remained. Schaudt started with a sea of concrete parking lots, interrupted by odd-shaped islands of green that were all connected by roadways. Nearly 5,600 parking spaces—an increase of 1,000—were to be provided, and East Waldron Drive, which slices through the site immediately south of the stadium, had to remain. Fortunately, the 1940s Park District headquarters building, just north of the stadium, was to be torn down. Its demolition would reopen a vista from the stadium across McFetridge Drive to the Field Museum of Natural History. An underground parking garage was planned there on the north end of the Soldier Field campus.

The western boundary of the site is Lake Shore Drive, which skirts the stadium at a distance of only 30 feet; the southern edge of the campus is approximately the midpoint of a surface parking lot that Soldier Field shares with the huge McCormick Place convention center to the south. Along the east side of the campus, a bike trail parallels a linear, soft-landscape memorial to slain Chicago police officers; Schaudt's new landscape added a thousand linear feet to the memorial. Farther east are Burnham Harbor and Meigs Field, a historic general aviation airport occupying a north-south spit of land along Lake Michigan's shore.

Prior to construction, Schaudt says, this land was utterly flat. When you looked out across Burnham Harbor, you saw the seawall of Meigs Field. Schaudt designed a landscape that rises and falls in convincingly natural ways and creates landforms sympathetic with the part of Wood + Zapata's new stadium bowl that is visible from the rest of the campus. (The architects extended the new structure above the old colonnades because a high water table precluded lowering the playing field.) Creating the 98-acre campus, which opened a year ago, called for relocating 120,000 cubic yards of excavated fill on the site and bringing in 57,850 cubic yards of new soil. The land, previously mostly pavement, gained 164,560 square yards of sod and now supports 1,340 trees in 45 species and varieties and 12,800 shrubs in 25 species and varieties.

Near the site's four corners, Schaudt inserted signature landscapes: a children's garden, a pedestrian entrance along a water wall and a hawthorn grove, a large topiary sculpture to mark a vehicular entrance, and a sledding hill. They mitigate the project's large scale, lend it character and identity, and make the curving roads and soft landforms in Schaudt's plan all the more pleasing, especially when you compare them to the workaday landscape they replaced. You have to walk the new Soldier Field landscape, however, to fully appreciate the design.

Showing me the children's garden on a humid midsummer day, Schaudt explains that the Chicago Park District wanted it to be like no other playground in the city. "I looked at it as a sculpture garden for kids," he says. The 82,000-square-foot, $1 million garden is positioned at the northeast corner of the new campus, the point closest to three neighbors—the 1921 Field Museum, the 1929 Shedd Aquarium, and the 1930 Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum—which together attract more than three million visitors a year, many of whom are schoolchildren. The garden gives kids by the busload a place to have a brownbag lunch with their teachers or a hotdog with their families and to safely run free.

The garden is as sweetly benign as Teletubbyland. "There's nothing intellectual; it's all about fun," Schaudt insists, but most of the garden's features have a didactic rationale that children can discover...or not. A path surfaced in spongy, recycled rubber spirals around like a nautilus, a natural form observed at all three museums (fossils at the Field, seahorse tails at the Shedd, and the Milky Way at the Adler). Here and there, the surface rises in brightly colored little mounds that resemble sand dunes. As you walk around the spiral, you notice a dozen or so plaques with the names of cities, including Rome, New York, Barcelona, and Milwaukee, that can be found at 42 degrees north latitude or 87 degrees west longitude, Chicago's earthly coordinates. Each plaque also has an icon—a bratwurst for Milwaukee, the Coliseum for Rome, New York's apple, a Barcelona bull—and the symbols are repeated in their relative geographic positions on the surface of a big cast-bronze globe that a couple of small children can just manage to rotate. Five other large spherical sculptures, including a geodesic half-sphere at the center, are for kids to crawl through, clamber over, manhandle, or maybe contemplate.

From the garden, the land sweeps up to the southwest and the stadium. Walking toward the stadium, we step off terra firma at some undetectable edge and onto the green roof of the stadium's north garage. The rectangular roof encompasses five acres of undulating landscape with no defined program; it conceals 2,500 parking spaces. The garage volume rises 20 feet from McFetridge Drive to the base of the stadium. The structure was always meant to have a green roof, but originally it was envisioned as a simple, tilted plane. "The architects designed it before we came aboard," Schaudt says. "Mayor [Richard] Daley looked at [the design] and said it didn't excite him very much." So Schaudt turned it into an interesting landscape. Explains Stephen Prassas, ASLA, of Schaudt's office: "We wanted the landforms to sweep around, almost like fingers that reach up onto the green roof." The architects were receptive to the idea and generally very supportive, Schaudt adds, and so was the mayor.

The landscape architects were able to create rolling landforms on the garage's roof, which was limited for live and dead loads, by employing refrigerator-size Styrofoam blocks piled up and covered with nine inches of soil. Foam weighs a tenth as much as soil and doesn't compact or degrade, so it is being used more and more for rooftop landscapes.

To help meet his budget of approximately $8 million (in an overall project that cost $606 million), Schaudt chose to trade off tree size for good soil, he explains. An example can be seen along a walk at the downhill side of the garage roof where a copse of immature red oaks, hybrid elms, Miyabei maples, and tulip trees someday will provide a pedestrian canopy blending into mature hawthorns and Norway maples already on the site. The trees are intended to draw people out of their cars and encourage them to walk, as are the linden allées in McFetridge Drive's twin medians, still under construction. From a design point of view, the rows relate to the Field Museum's Beaux-Arts south facade that they front, and they reflect Soldier Field's classical colonnades and tempietto end pieces.

The landscape south of McFetridge Drive, however, is unmistakably modern. The stadium's north entrance walkways spin out in an arc, slicing into the hillock on which the stadium rises and subtly expressing on the ground plane the dynamic aerial forms of the stadium's new bowl. A 250-foot-long water wall (a veterans memorial designed by Wood + Zapata) cants back to the west and separates the paired parallel walkways, which emanate from two levels of the stadium and flatten into one at McFetridge Drive. Hawthorns in the orchard adjacent to the walks funnel out from the stadium, reinforcing the walkways' gentle arc.

The signature landscape features near the campus's south end are the topiary globe and sledding hill. The globe, 15 feet in diameter and similar to the one at the 1964 World's Fair, marks the turnoff from Lake Shore Drive into Museum Campus Drive. The sledding hill lies on axis with the Campus Drive entrance before the road curves north. Rising 23 feet over the road, the hill is made of material excavated from the rest of the site, principally from the parking garage just north of the stadium.

As Museum Campus Drive crosses East Waldron Drive and heads north, it curves west toward the stadium to afford an oblique view of the east colonnade and then arcs back toward the lake. In effect, this sweep of road toward the stadium enlarges the naturalistic landscape contiguous with the lakefront at the expense of a large formal forecourt for the colonnade. The view from the colonnade, over East Waldron Drive toward Lake Michigan, may cinch it for you—it did for me—that the road takes a curve in the right direction.

The new Soldier Field campus skillfully blends rational and romantic ideas and respects the site's boundaries. Although he looked inward toward the new stadium bowl for design inspiration, Schaudt also melded new and surrounding landscapes into the grand plan. He augmented the memorial to slain police officers on the east side, and he kept the north edge along McFetridge Drive respectful of the Field Museum's classical character. He orchestrated views around and from rolling vertical landforms, hoping to lure drivers out of their vehicles and into a new pedestrian-oriented landscape. And the addition of acres of permeable soil and thousands of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, perennials, annuals, and bulbs improves the city's environmental health.

Other NFL teams and their cities should be so lucky.

Chicago Park District. Client/developer: Chicago Bears. Landscape architect: Peter Lindsay Schaudt Landscape Architecture, Inc. (Peter Lindsay Schaudt, ASLA, design principal; Stephen D. Prassas, asla, associate/project landscape architect; Jessica Smith, asla). Architect: Lohan Wood + Zapata (a joint venture). Project manager: Hoffman Management Partners. Construction manager: Turner/Barton Malow/Kenny (a joint venture). Irrigation, soil, and turf consultant: Jeffrey L. Bruce & Company (Jeffrey L. Bruce, FASLA; Bob Bushyhead, ASLA; Charles Dixon; Eric Davis, ASLA). Sledding hill meadow ecologist: Landscape Resources/Hey and Associates. Consulting arborist: Urban Forest Management. EPS geofoam engineer: AES Consulting. Structural engineer: Thornton-Tomasetti Engineers. Geotechnical engineer: STS Consultants.

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