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Placemaking Chicago

Helping people improve communities, one place at a time

2013 Challenge: Activate Union Station

Congratulations to our winners!

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) is excited to announce the two winners of our 2013 Activate Union Station placemaking contest, which this summer called for creative ideas to enliven Chicago’s iconic Union Station as a community gathering place and cultural asset. Blah Blah Blob!, submitted by Chicago-based architecture and planning firm Latent Design and Kent State Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, will activate the Plaza at Fifth Third Center. trainYARD, submitted by a Chicago-based team of architects, will activate the Great Hall in the iconic Head House. Bring your friends and family for eye-catching designs and fun activities between Saturday, Aug. 24, and Monday, Sept. 2!

A big thank you to our sponsor, Fifth Third Bank, for awarding the winners $5,000 each to bring their ideas to life!

And don't miss programming sponsor Fitness Formula Clubs' series of FREE classes on the Plaza:

  • Monday, Aug. 26, noon: Zumba
  • Tuesday, Aug. 27, 5 p.m.: Fit kick
  • Wednesday, Aug. 28, noon: Pound
  • Thursday, Aug. 29, 5 p.m.: Pound
  • Friday, Aug. 30, noon: Zumba

As well as these FREE events taking place in the Blob throughout the week: 

Saturday, Aug. 24
5 p.m. Spontaneous Interventions Panel with Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative
7 p.m. Blob Party

Saturday, Aug. 31
7 p.m. Blob Party

We look forward to seeing you there!

About the contest and contestants:

The Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) was thrilled to receive 25 plans for the Activate Union Station placemaking contest, which asks the question, “How can we bring Chicago’s Union Station back to life?” The public had the opportunity to vote for their favorite idea starting Friday, July 26, through Wednesday, July 31, at The public vote did not decide the winner of the contest. However, the panel of judges took the results of the public contest into account when picking the final winners.

Each project description below includes a link to the visual plan. The contestants, in alphabetical order by project title, are as follows:


"Four words direct our design--guide, enrich, attract, morph. The goal: to redefine and invigorate the space for commuters, tourists, and the everyday Chicagoan. Eight activities support these goals and transform both locations enticing hotspots: commute, picnic, exercise, nap, converse, wait, busk, chillax."

This design consists of various sod lots in the Great Hall where visitors and passersby alike can relax, picnic, play music or hold impromptu events. It brings nature into the bustling commuter thoroughfare and challenges the passerby to reevaulate the space around them. By mimicking the general shape of a train yard, the designers have melded together the built and natural environments.

Arcade Revitalization

This design uses paint and balloons to designate certain spaces in the arcade for certain activities. It makes use of both the covered arcade space and the uncovered sidewalk space. By color-coding areas for specific activities, the designer develops structure through art. The indoor/outdoor nature of the spaces highlight the arcade's main asset as an underutilized space: In inclement weather, it can provide shelter, while still allowing the user to engage with the outdoors."The proposal implements the idea of art in the street...that brings together people of multicultural educations and backgrounds. The multicultural aspect is represented by the idea of color."

Blah Blah Blob!

"Placemaking is a collective act that improves public space by combining our desires to create shared space and enjoy our urban environment.  It isn’t defined by how it looks or who utilizes it, but instead by how well it engenders connectivity, activity, comfort, and fun."

This design features a nylon sculpture over an astroturf lawn that, while stationary most of the time, can be moved around to keep the space feeling different and fresh. Programming, such as lectures and other special events, will take place throughout the 10-day implementation period. Blah Blah Blob! both engenders placemaking and breaks down some of the barriers between traditional concepts of art and people by encouraging interaction. It also lends playfulness to a space too often associated with hurrying along on a daily commute.

Chicago, At Play

This design sets three pianos at intervals along the arcade, accompanied by educational posters that "teach" one song each. The concept not only invites passersby to interact, it serves as an educational experience as well. Along with the possibility of an impromptu concert at rush hour, it engages the curious and challenges everyone to pick up knew knowledge that they can carry with them long past the end of the implementation period."By placing pianos outdoors and accompanying them with instructional posters, we can let chicagoans indulge in a productive activity and help them learn some tunes."


"Dandy is designed to encourage people to break the routines of normality and interact with one another.  The hope is that these interactions will activate the space."

The design uses PVC piping to create a spherical shape that, complete with rattles, will react to touch by rolling around the Great Hall. By shaking up the space through sound and motion, Dandy (short for Dandelion) encourages people to interact with it and with each other. It acts as a catalyst for conversation and introductions.


This design is an interactive and living art exhibit that showcases one artist's evolution through time. It is a wall built of canvases, beginning with early works and continuing through to the present. At the end of the wall, the artist wil continue to paint during the implementation period, adding each canvas to the wall as it is finished. By showcasing the evolution of art, the exhibit allows the audience a window into the artist's process and provides a rare opportunity to watch the artist at work."This exhibit is unique because it gives the visitor a chance to watch the evolution of an artist’s mind over several years in chronological order."

Fix a Bicycle Contest

“The theme is to engage and entertain the public through cycling training and a contest.”

The design for this concept constructs a stage structure in the Great Hall. This plan seeks to engage the public through competition. Using bicycle repair experts to teach the public a valuable skill—repairing a bicycle—this activity, like the Chicago, At Play concept, provides knowledge that passersby can carry with them long after the end of the implementation period.

High Five Crowd

This design uses brightly colored mannequins to draw people’s attention away from the usual humdrum commute. Each mannequin mimics a particular emotion, ranging from elated to exhausted, and as people recognize themselves in these mannequins, it pushes them both to keep looking and to reflect on who they are, where they are going and how the other people around them are feeling.“Each figure in this installation represents a special moment in people's lives and people share their feelings by recognizing ‘themselves’ in the crowd.”

I Searched High and Low for You

“High and Low addresses Union Station’s problem with being an architectural wallflower at a skyscraper prom with visually iconic placemaking.”

The design uses balloons and red fabric to transform the façade of the arcade into a towering, eye-catching sculpture. The use of the fabric within the arcade to create hammocks engages the public and turns the space into an inviting area to wait for a train, shielded from the elements.

Leave Your Mark on Chicago

This design consists of chalkboard pathways and walls in the Great Hall that prompt people with specific questions and suggestions, incorporating social media to continue the conversation outside the station and forge connections that would never have been made under ordinary circumstances. By doing so, this concept creates a niche for Union Station as a place to gather and disseminate information as well as people.“How will we get people to divert from their typical path? By creating a path of our ownthat anyone can leave their mark on.”


“Much like those classic games at the arcade, PARK(ade) features simple 2-player games (Connect Four, Battleship, Guess Who, etc.) that are almost universal in their understanding or can be taught in just seconds.”

This design creates designated spaces in the arcade and provides passersby and others with familiar and easy-to-learn games that can serve to pass the time before or between trains. The concept gives people an incentive to enjoy the nice weather instead of sitting inside, and encourages people to bring friends or even start a game with a stranger.

Pinball Hall

This design uses games to cultivate community; in this case, the game is pinball. Situated in the Great Hall, the concept includes an astroturf “court” that delineates the boundaries of the pinball “hall” and a large, elevated scoreboard that will display scores via text and twitter. A tournament on the last day of the implementation period pushes pinball novices and pros alike to compete against each other for the top score.“Pinball Hall gives Union Station’s Great Hall a forum for spontaneous community development and play and does so for speakers of any language, any age, and any pinball skill level.”

Punk Pop-up Installation

“What elements would best give participants the feel of what punk was really like?... The central ethos of punk has always been the music.”

This installation uses photographs, volunteers and, above all, music to engender a legitimate punk experience in the arcade. Drawing parallels between today’s cultural and political atmosphere and that of the punk era, the designers have attempted to recreate a “real” punk ethos. Interactive opportunities include dancing to music and engaging with volunteers dressed in punk garb.

Rush Hour Concert Series

“The goal is to create a more intimate audience-performance dynamic, and to encourage busy commuters to partake of the musical event if only briefly in passing.”

This design uses a stage area, seating, and potted plants to create an intimate concert atmosphere in the Great Hall, thereby making the space feel smaller and more comfortable and inviting. With four concerts programmed throughout the implementation period, it provides commuters, visitors and residents alike with a reason to spend time in Union Station.

Social Branching

“Areas such as Union Station that are so rich in history and culture are often overlooked as we quickly run from place to place blindly…Social branching is about connecting our society of great individuals, together.”

This design uses a “decaying tree” and ribbons—blue for visitors and cyan for commuters—in the Great Hall to serve as a surrogate for, and possibly lead to, interpersonal interaction. Six surrounding trees will represent the six transit connections around Union Station. The concept mimics the “branching” nature of social media, which the designers argue we have come to rely on increasingly in favor of face-to-face communication.

Spaceship HEART

“Spaceship HEART is as a large ‘LEGO’ system following the geometrical principal of octahedral and tetrahedral organization in space. With the system’s basic elements participants can construct stools/ tables/ display devices and public playground—the possibilities are endless.”

This design is an assemblage of cardboard polygons into an array of different household items or abstract shapes. Taking place By providing the audience with “endless possibilities,” the designers create a limitless field for experimentation, appealing to both children and adults.

Summer Skate

“With the summer in full effect, we often look for new ways to cool ourselves down. As much of this aspect is mind over matter, we want to create a cooler place where individuals can come together.”

This design would use fake “ice” to transform the Great Hall into a cooling oasis during Chicago’s hottest month. The public would be encouraged to skate over the surface of the installation, an eye-catching display that would attract attention from commuters and visitors alike.


“Transforming part of the Great Hall into the StoryStation will provide an oasis for travelers awaiting trains, literary entertainment for children and their parents, and a source of free reading material for all.”

This plan includes a carpeted area with bookshelves full of free books, tables for reading and a central programming/information area. Users can feel free to read a book at the station or take one home to return later. Programming like children’s bookmaking classes will encourage community and visitor involvement. The goal is to create a comfortable place for people to relax while waiting for a train.

The Great Hall of the People: Reclaiming Union Station

“One of the most iconic spaces in Chicago, we believe this is the perfect opportunity to make [Union Station] one of the most relevant civic places in the city, with a series of social, cultural and athletic activities.”

Incorporating a host of different activities, this design includes four separate areas in the Great Hall, distinguishable by the color-coded paint on the floor. From a game hall with table tennis to a fake turf with programmed film screenings and lectures, the space offers something for everyone—visitors, commuters and residents alike.

Text Union

“We want those passing through, whether for a moment or for hours, to be able to leave their mark, and encourage them to take the time to consider what others have left behind.”

This design uses a fabric screen high above the hustle and bustle of the Great Hall to project text messages that passersby can send and then watch appear above them. Allowing strangers to interact with each other over text, and providing an excuse to look up from our phones and read others’ comments, the plan creates a space for engagement that fits within the framework of today’s mobile-driven culture, and updates Union Station to the 21st century.

The Yard

“Chicago is the city of green spaces. Our motto is Urbs in Horto: The city in a garden. From the lawns of Millennium Park to the trees Hyde Park, from the vision of Burnham to the countless green roofs, we are known for our natural spaces. They are where we relax, we laugh, we play.”

The Yard comprises four lawn spaces in the Great Hall. A facsimile for the outdoors, when it may be too hot to spend time outside comfortably, The Yard provides the backdrop for an array of activities: picnicking, reading, hanging out with friends or any other outdoor activity, all within the cool atmosphere of Union Station’s Great Hall. By bringing the outdoors in, this project invites a new perspective on the station.


“We know that summer in Chicago can get hot and humid which makes it hard to get out and enjoy the lovely parks around the city. We are bringing the park to the people and putting it right in the middle of their daily routine.”

This design attempts to create a park-like atmosphere within the Great Hall. It calls for three separate recycled-grass areas, one set up with games like tetherball, croquet and bocce; another with lawn chairs and umbrellas; and a final area with picnic tables and bistro seating near the food court. By providing people with suggestions, the design engages those who might otherwise just keep walking.

Union: an urban constellation

This design will use floating sculptural forms in the arcade and sensor-triggered speakers. Each speaker will play a live feed of a particular suburban station whenever someone walks by. This design aims to connect Chicago’s suburbs through an art installation that represents various train lines and transforms them into “sculptural nodes.” The project engages people from all over the city and promotes reaction to and interaction with the sculptural form and each other.“This project’s paramount focus is to create an interactive artistic gesture that is meant to activate the unique space for Chicago’s residents and tourists alike.”

Where Have You Been?!

“With so many people in one place it is hard not to wonder about all the places we have collectively visited.”

This design uses a plywood map on the floor of the Great Hall, where visitors, commuters and residents alike are invited to mark out the places they have visited during their lifetimes. The novelty of the concept will be in its gradual transformation from blank slate into community drawing board, creating a story of “missed connections” between complete strangers who have traveled to the same places—including Union Station—and never met.

Wits to Work

We hope for people to have a chance to take a break from the crowd and think about strangers who are sharing the same space with us through this project.”

This design uses giant gold balloons forty feet above the crowd in the Great Hall to ask questions and speak our collective thoughts aloud. Attempting to liven up the atmosphere during rush hour—or any time—the balloons say our own thoughts back at us, reminding us that we are not alone, and that the people around us are all thinking things we’ve thought before. By using a celebratory medium—balloons—to express the mundane, the concept reminds us to relax and enjoy.

Thanks for your votes!

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