Another Green World: The eco-friendly UrbanLab designs our future

Landscaped hill in the Smart Museum courtyard; photo by Sam Bowman

Landscaped hill in the Smart Museum courtyard; photo by Sam Bowman

The grassy knoll in the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum courtyard was a pleasant surprise at the beginning of this school year. Perhaps this five-foot-tall hill seems a bit out of place, as it rises out of a sea of concrete, jutting out from the simple façade of the Cochrane-Woods Art Center. It conjures a Zen-like sense of peace, lined in a pattern of loose, round stones. Is it just another work of art that will eventually be scooped into a box and stored in the depths of the Smart Museum? Not exactly.

UrbanLab, a Bridgeport-based architecture firm that specializes in urban design, is responsible for conceptualizing the Smart Museum courtyard’s new layout. The project is a smaller version of what UrbanLab has been praised for doing on a larger scale: creating sustainable designs in modern architecture. The company was started in 2001 by Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn. Hills can be seen as a recurring theme in their work: they have a similar mound in the back of their office. However, theirs, unlike the Smart Museum’s, is made up of recycled debris from the grocery store that had once occupied the space. UrbanLab has designed several commercial, residential, and institutional spaces with the goal of making them more environmentally-conscious.

“Green” has become an important catchphrase over the last few years: it’s been applied to all aspects of our lives, from clothing, to food, to shelter. UrbanLab has sought to decrease the environmental impact of its constructions by reusing demolition materials, utilizing “green roofs” (which cover the top of a building at least partially with vegetation), and incorporating courtyards into their design. They take into account both the surroundings and the intended utilitarian purpose of the space, in order to make it eco-friendly without sacrificing practicality. The University consulted the art department regarding the new plans for the courtyard. Professor Martha Ward remembers requesting a grassy area in the final layout, so that students and professors could have a “place where classes could come out to sit and talk.”

Functionality is an essential part of UrbanLab’s approach. Last year, the firm won the History Channel’s “City of the Future” competition with their design for Chicago, entitled “Growing Water.” By transforming Chicago’s streets into “eco-boulevards,” their plan would allow the city to recycle 100 percent of its water. Their vision is an ecologist’s utopia: living systems of fish and river plants would rid Chicago’s water of waste before sending it back through wind turbine-lined boulevards into Lake Michigan. As a result of large scale endeavors such as “Growing Water,” Chicago Public Radio has ranked them among cancer researchers and community organizers as one of the top fifteen visionaries in Chicago. The award signifies a local achievement, but it has global implications as well: these people can make Chicago a model city for others. Felsen is quoted on Chicago Public Radio’s website: “What we do here is going to be replicated all over the world.”

It’s exciting to know that the University of Chicago has a small piece of the eco-revolution tucked away in a corner of the Smart Museum courtyard. Sustainability takes a critical approach to progress; it asks us to think about the long-term future. While UrbanLab’s method relies heavily on science, there is a definite artistic component to their creations. Maybe it’s more appropriate than we thought to grow a hill of green grass next to a building filled with paintings and sculpture. Achieving sustainability is certainly an art.