Nearly 100 yards lie between Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and Lake Michigan. So when Goettsch Partners began the design of a subterranean hall to exhibit the museum’s German-made U-505 submarine, the architects found themselves in the unlikely—and ironic—position of fighting to keep the lake’s water from submerging the vessel.
“It’s possible the lake could rise or we could get a 500-year rain,” says Michael Kaufman, AIA, a partner at Chicago-based Goettsch. “So we have drain tiles around the perimeter and twin sump pumps with diesel generator backup.” Water aside, the land-based journey of the U-505 from the 1944 capture by the Allies off the coast of West Africa to a new basement adjacent to the museum involved a substantial amount of planning.
Acquired by the museum in 1954, the 700-ton submarine had for years rested outside, where it had seriously deteriorated. The museum brought Goettsch on board to design the over-40-foot, below-grade exhibition hall and connect it to its original Charles Atwood–designed 1893 building through a nearly 80-foot-long underground hallway (the plaster building was actually reconstructed in stone in 1933). The new splayed, concrete structure, designed to maximize resistance to the compressive forces of the surrounding earth as well as to make the space appear larger, has the feel of a submarine “pen,” which Kaufman says was intentional, since the Germans launched submarines from hidden pens for secrecy.
Contractors placed the 270-foot-long sub on 18 sets of dollies before slowly moving it parallel to the new 85-by-315-foot “bathtub” at the museum’s northeast corner. The sub—freshly restored—was then “launched” onto a forest of dense logs constructed inside the future hall. Workers would jack up the sub, remove some logs, and then carefully lower it. Finally, after two weeks, they nestled the U-505 into place on a 16-inch foundation slab. Only then could the contractor install the 85-foot-long tapered-steel box beams and close up the space.
The finished hall, kept clean by integrating mechanical systems into the canted walls and placing other services in a mezzanine ceiling, has proved popular with visitors. Kaufman says museum attendance spiked 20 percent in 2006, the first year it opened. Although Kaufman admits he and his staff were motivated in part by their love of the classic 1981 Wolfgang Petersen submarine film Das Boot, the hall conveys anything but a sense of claustrophobia.