Design with Company Fashions an Architectural Garden Party for the Ragdale Ring Pavilion

Chicago’s Design with Company fashions an architectural garden party for the third annual Ragdale Ring Pavilion.

Called the “Serpentine Pavilion of the Midwest” by some, the annual Ragdale Ring Pavilion opened in Chicago in mid-June. The project was designed by Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks of Design with Company and functions as a stage for performances by musicians and poets.

Photos courtesy Design with Company

Tucked away on the sleepy Gilded Age campus of the Ragdale Foundation in Chicago’s northern suburbs, the third annual Ragdale Ring Pavilion beams with youthful allure. The temporary timber structure strikes a Pac-Man–like profile, framing a stage for summer performances by resident artists, poets, and musicians. Foam cushions shaped like misfit building blocks, feather-light and in clownish colors, are haphazardly scattered on the lawn in front.

“For us, if children like it, it’s a measure of success,” says Stewart Hicks, founder of Design with Company, who, with partner Allison Newmeyer, is responsible for the pavilion’s playful design. The new structure’s features, the pair say, have their source in Ragdale’s history. Its proprietor, Howard Van Doren Shaw, a prominent architect famous for turn-of-the-century mansions in and around Chicago, erected the first Ragdale Ring in 1912 to stage his wife’s plays. The young pavilion program follows in that theatrical vein, and since 2013 architects have competed to erect their own venues at the same spot.

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Previous iterations, such as the Bittertang Farm’s tumescent pavilion from last year, have veered toward open-ended experimentation. Design with Company’s intervention seems almost straightforward by comparison. But encoded in the Postmodern styling is the story of Shaw’s architecture and his influence on Chicago’s cityscape. Hicks and Newmeyer combed through Shaw’s portfolio, searching for motifs that lent themselves to creative appropriation. These elements are abstracted into the architecture of the proscenium, whose zigzag profile recalls the saw-toothed roofline of Shaw’s University of Chicago Quadrangle Club.

Newmeyer sews the coverings of cushions for the pavilion. When not in use as seats for the performance venue, the cushions can be stored on the stage.

Courtesy Allison Derr

The oversized cushions further abstract Shaw’s pet architectural themes, while also adding a participatory element at what the architects call “Shaw Town.” With each recital or poetry reading, the audience scatters this furniture across the lawn, inevitably devising different configurations for the pillows in the process. “We’ve been pretty adamant about saying, ‘There’s no up or down,’” Newmeyer says of how visitors may use a cushion. “Do people stand it up or lean on it?”

In the end, the pavilion isn’t a challenge to decipher the designers’ logic, but is simply an invitation for visitors to interact with pieces of Chicago’s history. Shaw was an architect that helped transform a near-frontier swamp to a boomtown of industry and subsequent hive of inveterate political and entrepreneurial boasters. So when Hicks says “We want to make where we are important,” he’s not just channeling Shaw, but also Chicago’s tradition of breathless boosterism.

The padded cushions are shaped according to motifs employed in the architecture of Howard Van Doren Shaw, who founded the Ragdale Foundation a century ago.

Newmeyer and Hicks demonstrate the versatility of the cushions. The pavilion, called “Shaw’s Town,” is designed to be playful and approachable, encouraging children to “put on a show,” Hicks says.

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