Set on 50 acres of prairie in Lake Forest, Illinois, Ragdale plays host to a revolving group of artists, writers, composers and choreographers for residencies ranging from two to six weeks. Recently, the organization launched a competition to design and build a new, temporary Ragdale Ring to house summer performances and events. New York–based architect Stephen Dietrich Lee’s entry was the winner, a design, he says, that “worked well in a natural setting and that has very little site impact.” We talked with him a bit more about the competition and his thoughts on the structure.
What prompted you to enter the competition?
We entered the competition for two reasons: Primary—very few competitions permit the architect to actually build a winning scheme, and design-build is something I am very much interested in. This is a way to be a part of each creative aspect: design, analysis, fabrication and construction.
Secondary—This is an inaugural competition that will grow throughout the design community for years to come. We thought about the future more than the present, meaning we were already thinking about the 10, 25 and 50 year Ragdale Ring Design Catalogues. This is an opportunity to be part of something much larger than just designing a temporary performance space.
What was the inspiration behind the design?
The inspiration was derived from an analysis of frames and porosity. We took a chance and proposed an open air structure. I believe the skeletal systems of buildings are one of the most interesting stages of construction. Many physical models were built, which explored the relationship of a single module that is flipped and stitched together creating a lace structure. We then explored the catenary, or self-weight, deflections of creating arches that would allow the lace structure to stand without additional assistance.
Since it's a temporary structure, how did your approach differ from one that would be permanent? Did you feel more empowered to be whimsical?
The temporality did not persuade our approach. We look at each project and explore relationships within its context. The site has incredible views to a prairie, which is elegantly framed by trees. We knew it was important to maintain the visual connection to the prairie while creating a shell that changes density as one moves around it.
What special considerations were in place given its purpose and temporary role?
We considered the subtlety of how the structure connects to the earth. The structure weighs 4000 pounds and is carefully anchored to the earth. We knew it was important to minimize material waste. Because the structure is temporary, we knew it was important to stretch our dollar. Introducing a modular and repeatable system that generated 374 boards of the same length was a driving force. The only waste generated from the 2x6 wood members is from cutting them in half and drilling four holes in each board for their connections.
Were its purpose versus its temporary status in opposition or did that not come into play?
The purpose and temporality were never at opposition throughout our studies. We find that program and structure play well together. For example, the structure feels very neutral as a backdrop for a performance. But when one moves through the landscape the Ring is much more active because its density and geometry is much more dynamic. When the Ring is not hosting an event the Ring is the event.
6) What is the key thing you'd like to communicate to our readers?
We developed a scheme that worked well in a natural setting that has very little site impact. We are always challenging ourselves to minimize our impact on the environment. It is important to use our resources sparingly and create dynamic structures.