CHICAGO — Visitors to this year's Chicago Architecture Biennial can check out a sweeping proposal for more than a dozen new new art installations and public areas on the 9-mile stretch of Irving Park Road between the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers.
The "Portage Walking Museum" would include a new riverfront beach, two new boathouses, towering sculptures and interactive fountain, according to one vision dreamed up by members of the design firm Perkins+Will.
The sprawling project first was proposed last September by members of the Portage Park Neighborhood Association, who imagined permanent landmarks commemorating the neighborhood's original purpose and namesake: as a portage for Native Americans carrying their canoes from river to river.
"We want to unfold a history of who was traveling this area before it developed and how it was used," association president Patricia Conroy said. "Some other goals were just to make Irving more interesting and more pleasant, surprise people with something unexpected, and make them feel the presence of nature in the urban environment."
Association members have spent the last year pitching the idea to neighborhood and nonprofit groups, convening a steering committee with members of the American Indian Center and Chicago Public Art Group along the way, Conroy said.
They've also found an ally in the Metropolitan Planning Council, which wrangled designers from Perkins+Will to volunteer their time in sketching the idea on paper.
"We offered to help however we could, and the more we talked to [Conroy] the more we started thinking about this as much more than just a walking museum," design principal Todd Snapp said. "We started thinking about this as a broader opportunity for the city to connect the two rivers ... with something that's accessible, highly interactive, reveals a history and links different communities."
See the full proposal from Perkins+Will:
The proposal calls for 13 public installations of varying sizes to be built all along the route, with enough smaller signs and landmarks to "for someone who's walking to encounter something about every minute," senior project designer Julie Michiels said.
"Then every five minutes you'd have something at a larger scale, and every 10 minutes you'd have something that's a destination itself," Michiels said. "The idea is to be something you can see in bite-sized pieces over a series of weekends, or stitch the whole thing together at once if you want to take the time."
The team drew up four proposals for "destinations" at different sites along the route:
• A massive "ring" would span the width of the North Branch of the Chicago River at Horner Park, enveloping a new beach on the west side of the river and a boat launch on the east bank.
• At the entrance of Merrimac Park at Narragansett Avenue, a walk-through fountain and reflecting pool would mark the continental divide between the Great Lakes watershed and the water that flows into the Mississippi River.
• A "parklet" called "The Mirage" would hug the road in the Six Corners Shopping District, inviting passersby to lounge on a grass mound below a warped canopy designed to look like a canoe.
• A new boathouse named for the late Dunning canoe craftsman Ralph Frese would be built at the western end of the route, against the west bank of the Des Plaines River.
Supporters would likely have to seek out money for the project through various public and private sources, Snapp said. Backers have already begun by applying for a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.
And even if bankrolled, the project would need buy-in from a thicket of bureaucratic agencies. The 9-mile route traverses five city wards, two parks and a Cook County Forest Preserves, all before poking into suburban Schiller Park.
Plus, Irving Park's status as a state road means the project would likely need guidance from Springfield.
But the designs on display are "just a starting point," meant to build momentum for more concrete proposals, Michiels said.
"Large urban proposals can be complicated, but the first step is just getting an idea out there that people can be excited about," she said. "So this is just a framework to get that conversation going, so people can fill it in with their own ideas."