Burnham Pavilion

Sturdy Enough to Endure

Tectonics’ execution of Hadid’s complex design showcases perfectly the possibilities for creating gorgeous, innovative shapes with tensioned fabric.

To commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Chicago’s Burnham Plan, the City of Chicago commissioned Tectonics to build the Burnham Pavilion, which stood in downtown Millennium Park for months. London-based architect Zaha Hadid designed the form for this unique, curvilinear structure, and Tectonics helped make it a successful cultural centerpiece for the city.

The pavilion, which was designed to contain an anniversary-themed audiovisual presentation, needed to be large in order to accommodate a high volume of visitors. Hadid conceived a frame that was impressive in size: 70’ x 50’ x 20’.

One early challenge in designing the pavilion’s structure was that the pod-like form lifts and arcs over the ground in an irregular shape. Tectonics solved this problem by creating two heavy-duty aluminum rings that acted like a spine, then added to them aluminum tubes that radiated out like a ribcage on which the fabric skin could be attached.

The finished frame was comprised of roughly 7,000 components. Each aluminum tube was uniquely shaped, requiring a great attention to detail when working the individual lengths of aluminum tubing.

In addition, the structure also had to be sturdy enough to endure Chicago’s varied and sometimes harsh cli-mate and heavy pedestrian traffic for months. Tectonics used structural tubing throughout to ensure that the frame would be able to withstand both weather and wear. The most difficult aspect of the job was designing the structure to be modular. The idea was that the pavilion could be packed into crates and shipped anywhere in the world to be reassembled.

The cloth skin, stitched from heavy-duty awning material, was waterproof, UV-resistant, and fire-retardant. The fabric was tough and difficult to tension in long lengths, so Tectonics devised a system to lace short bands tightly to a second structure of aluminum ribs for the desired taut effect. Due to budgetary and time constraints, the fabric cover was completed by another tensioned fabric manufacturer, although Tectonics’ design was still used.

In homage to Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, which envisioned grids of city streets emanating out from the city’s center, the pavilion contained openings that were cut into the outer skin. These curving slits let sun into the interior during the day; at night, the structure was illuminated with changing patterns of vivid colors, like a rare gem set down in the middle of the city. The Chicago Tribune's architecture critic, Blair Kamin, described the pavilion as "a virtuoso display of structure, space and light."

Tectonics’ execution of Hadid’s complex design show-cases perfectly the possibilities for creating gorgeous, innovative shapes with tensioned fabric. Due to the unique skills of Tectonics’ employees, which earned the then-small company the project, the Burnham Pavilion continues to be an example of what Tectonics is capable of doing in terms of innovative design and execution.

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