Oct 11th 2019

College of Architecture Students Win Award for Design Reimagining Chicago’s South Works

In 1993 U.S. Steel South Works, located at the mouth of the Calumet River in South Chicago, closed after more than 100 years of operation. More than 25 years later, what remains of one of the world’s largest steel mills is a massive plot of contaminated land and a 30-foot-high ore wall that once contained the iron ore that would be used to build the Chicago skyline over the course of the twentieth century. There have been many plans to build on the former South Works site since the mill closed, but all have fizzled out.

Given the challenge of the site, but the opportunity it provides, Associate Professor Catherine Wetzel made it the subject of a College of Architecture studio project. One of the studio’s projects, designed by Pimpakarn Rattanathumawat (B.Arch. 5th Year) and Botao Sun (B.Arch. 5th Year), received second place in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture’s Steel Design Student Competition. The competition, held in partnership with the American Institute of Steel Construction, evaluates student projects that make prominent use of steel in their designs.

Rattanathumawat and Sun’s design, called “Power of Place,” is a long-span building with large glass facades. What’s novel about the project is its lack of a foundation. Instead, the entire structure is extended from massive steel beams mounted onto the ore wall, which eliminates the need to dig into contaminated soil.

“The idea was inspired from a report on an EPA-supervised cleanup conducted in South Works, and the fact that two large-scale mixed-use developments have been planned and abandoned due to the issues of soil contamination,” says Rattanathumawat. “The amount of heavy metal elements and harmful chemical components causes extreme damage to the structure of the soil, making it too contaminated for safe habitation.”

Because of the issues with soil contamination at South Works, the duo began their project by researching the soil’s conditions and contents. What they found was earth contaminated with slag—a glass-like byproduct of the smelting process—and buried metal and concrete. The fragmented nature of the soil buildup would make it difficult to build a sturdy foundation.

In addition to housing the raw materials used in steel production, the original ore walls were used to hold the weight of the mill’s massive crane system. Given that, it made sense to bring the wall back to its original purpose. “We don't want people to think that we’re going into a new period and not thinking about the last by just building a new structure on top,” says Sun. “That huge wall is monumental, and people see the story behind it.”

Rattanathumawat and Sun imagine their structure housing both a community space and a soil remediation center, which could use processes such as bioremediation to improve conditions. The two separate programs are divided by the concrete wall running through the center of the building, but the public can witness the soil remediation process at work.

“We want people to see the process. As a piece of land, it was born by the birth of the city and now it’s digesting all the waste, and we thought that was a meaningful thing,” says Sun.