Span Studio has designed two tree-related exhibitions at the Chicago Architecture Center using a layered grid to reference engineered wood and large-scale graphics that aim to accurately represent tree characteristics.
The first of the exhibitions is ReCovered: Chicago’s Urban Tree Canopy, which serves to remind people of the critical role of trees in urban space. Curated by Ross Barney Architects, the exhibition highlights how trees can affect everything from air quality to quality of life, including the relationship between tree coverage and income, crime and social vulnerability in the city of Chicago.
After passing through ReCovered, visitors come to ReFramed: The Future of Cities in Wood, curated by CAC with spatial design by UrbanLab Architects. The exhibition showcases architectural models of mass timber projects worldwide, including public spaces and office buildings, and both adaptative reuse and new construction.
The design for this space is inspired by Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) construction methods, which forms an underlying grid for all exhibition graphics including narrative text, detailed infographics, custom maps and an 18-foot-tall banner.
Span devised the layout in collaboration with the architects for each exhibition. Visitors enter ReCovered through an immersive, abstract tree canopy “that lowers and compresses the space”, says Span founder and design director Bud Rodecker. The space opens up again when they turn a corner into the ReFramed exhibition, which uses tall banners to mimic “the density of an urban environment or forest”, he adds.
Both exhibitions work with illustrations of trees as a backdrop, and Rodecker says the studio sought to “accurately represent the unique characteristics of each tree”, from leaf and canopy shape to height.
For ReCovered, Span created to-scale, wall-sized illustrations. This presented a “unique production challenge” as the elements such as the street scene had to be drawn in Adobe Photoshop “to the pixel dimensions of the wall”, says Rodecker.
The design for ReFramed, “is built entirely on a grid that stacks and layers pattern and image”, says Rodecker, referencing the engineered wood products from the show.
One of the challenges with ReFramed was how to clearly present a huge amount of information in one space as the curators of the show used many data sources, according to Rodecker. “It was in varying states of quality and accessibility; from embedded images in presentations to raw map data”, he says, adding that Span worked to unify all of the “disparate elements” under “a single visual style” for the exhibition.
The key aim of Span’s graphic system, says Rodecker, is to use consistent infographics to present data “in a cohesive visual presentation” to avoid “overwhelming” visitors. The design of both exhibition spaces considers how visitors can interact with and digest the content “at the pace or level of detail they prefer”, Rodecker adds.
Span used the exhibitions’ colour palettes to devise a “bold visual brand” that generates “visual interest” and ties in with the overarching content themes, he says. It was also important that the colours did not compete with the project imagery and complemented the natural wood, Rodecker explains.
After testing different palettes, Span opted for a collection of green hues from more muted tones of olive and dark green to brighter shades, which Rodecker says “pulls the space together”.
Alongside the architects, Span worked to ensure the exhibitions would be accessible to all visitors. Graphics have been positioned within “a consistent readable zone” on the walls and banners, and Span has designed “custom elevated platforms”, lifting the content on surfaces to “ensure readability from all heights”, says Rodecker. All small text contrast was tested for readability and all type appears in “a comfortable size for reading at a distance”, he adds.