Zaha Hadid’s Burnham Centennial pavilion, still under construction
Zaha Hadid’s Burnham Centennial pavilion, still under construction Credit: Joan Hackett

The news last week that there’d been a change in contractors for the Zaha Hadid-designed Burnham Centennial pavilion in Millennium Park wasn’t surprising. Weeks after its projected June 19 opening, the Hadid structure—one of a pair intended to symbolize “Chicago’s bold thinking about the future”—was still encased in a construction tent, like a giant insect stuck in its cocoon. Late is fate at Millennium Park, which opened four years after the millennium turned. But this project—which began with the Burnham Plan Centennial Committee hiring London-based Hadid and Amsterdam’s Ben van Berkel to express the spirit of Chicago, and will apparently end with a tribute to Daniel Burnham that looks like a grounded blimp parked next to a playground slide gone wrong—couldn’t afford a two-month delay when it’s only scheduled to stay up for four. Something had to give.

“I wish it had worked out differently,” says Aaron Helfman, owner of TenFab Design, the Evanston company that either handed the project back or was relieved of it, depending on whom you ask. “But nobody knew where it was going. It was like a journey we took together, and then we were like, ‘Oh my God.’ It turned into a much greater and more complex endeavor than anybody had realized.” Helfman says nobody on the planet had done anything like this “amazing structure” before—”the scale and scope, the complexity. And then you throw in a three-month window to make it. The time frame was impossible.”

Although the centennial committee started talks with TenFab last November, and Helfman says he initially told them he wanted six months to build it, the company didn’t actually get the job until the end of February—which means it took more time to get the contracts done than TenFab was given to build a structure that would require 7,000 pieces, half of them custom fabricated.

The committee was already in a bind when it turned to TenFab. The structure going up in the park now isn’t Hadid’s original design, which was more angular and called for hard surfaces of wood and aluminum. It looked great, the committee’s executive director Emily Harris says, but when they sent it out for bid “it was way over budget.”

Committee members and staff were huddled with Thomas Roszak, the local architect assigned to the project, wondering what to do, Harris recalls, when somebody said, “Maybe it’s a tent!” Enter TenFab, whose main business is “tensioned fabric” designs for trade shows. Hadid’s firm redesigned the pavilion with a less expensive, cloth shell supported by aluminum ribs of different sizes. The inner walls would double as projection surfaces for a film about Chicago (assigned to London-based, Chicago-trained filmmaker Thomas Gray).

According to Harris, TenFab “kept representing” that the pavilion would be ready for the June 19 opening, but two weeks out it was clear that it wouldn’t, and the committee decided to move it to the site, where the public could at least watch the construction in progress. At that point, Harris says, they were hoping for mid-July. But “as we proceeded, it became abundantly clear that the contractor couldn’t finish.” In the end, “TenFab told us that they could not complete the project.” Another contractor, Elgin-based Fabric Images, took over, with a new anticipated completion date of August 1.

TenFab “grossly underestimated” what it would take to get the pavilion built, Harris says, and “miscalculated” the structural requirements for outdoor conditions, so the frame now has to be strengthened. The $1.1 million originally allocated for both pavilions won’t be enough. Harris says she doesn’t yet know how much the overrun will be, but given all the publicity they’ve been getting she’s thinking it can be handled by shifting money from the advertising budget.

Helfman says his firm has lost “a lot of money” on the project, beginning with the expense of renting a facility big enough for building something 70 feet long, 50 feet wide, and 20 feet tall. “My analogy is the Boeing 787, where you’re innovating on so many fronts simultaneously nobody knows what they’re getting into. We essentially engineered the whole solution,” but probably needed three months just for that, he says. In retrospect, he thinks a year would have been a reasonable time frame. “We were working seven days a week, and were prepared to stick with it,” he says. “But I think they realized how spent we were.” He says the word he got from the committee was, “‘We’re going to get somebody else to finish it.’

“I should have said, probably in February or in January, there’s not enough time,” Helfman says. By the time the contracts were signed, “I felt like the frog in the pot of water—sitting in water that gets slowly warmer and warmer, and by the time you realize you’re going to get boiled, it’s too late.”