So many of Chicago’s most iconic structures are about water: the Water Tower on Michigan Avenue, Buckingham Fountain, and Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. They’re all downtown, in touristy areas.
But this fall, French Afghani architect Feda Wardak is creating a water-related structure in an area tourists don’t usually visit—the South Side neighborhood of Englewood, as part of the future Englewood Nature Trail. Wardak will be building three, fourteen-foot wooden structures, which he hopes to eventually combine as a single forty-two-foot-tall water tower to sit on top of a disused elevated rail line.
The idea, Wardak says, is to create a gathering space and a fresh, unique landmark for a neighborhood that has long been neglected and overlooked. He wants to build a structure that will make the Englewood Nature Trail and the surrounding community easier to see.
“I thought of the water tower, not as a functioning tool, because they already have water there, they have city water, but as a symbolic tool to talk about water pollution, to talk about forgotten areas, to talk about urban discrimination and urban segregation,” says Wardak, who has investigated the effects of social housing demolition in the Paris suburbs, as well as the worldwide effects of water management. “The water tower is a kind of landmark to make the invisible visible, and at the same time to talk about water-management issues and qualities.”
Wardak’s project, “Making the Invisible Visible,” is part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. He arrived in Chicago in early September to build the project, and expects to be finished by the middle of October.
Wardak is an artist, architect, builder and independent researcher who has worked in Afghanistan on water-management systems. The country’s many years of warfare has included the bombing of ancient water infrastructure, which has decreased people’s ability to survive in an arid place. He has also done art and design work related to water in French communities.
Wardak met Faheem Majeed, a co-director of Chicago’s Floating Museum art collective, about two years ago near Paris. Majeed liked his art, which is always situated in public spaces, and asked him to work on the Englewood project.
When he first visited Chicago last November, Wardak says he was inspired by the metal water tanks he saw on top of older buildings. After the Great Fire of 1871, city ordinances required these tanks on tops of warehouses, factories and public buildings, though their numbers have dwindled in recent years. “I thought it would be interesting to build a water tower on the South Side,” Wardak says.
Wardak has been meeting for several months with Englewood residents to discuss the project, many of whom asked why he was working in their crime-troubled area. “No one works here,” Wardak was told. He talked to people downtown who had never even visited Englewood.
But to Wardak, the Englewood landscape is “very beautiful.” He noticed many places where housing was neglected and destroyed, leaving empty lots. “From these lots, you could see downtown. I had this idea that you could see downtown from this place, but from downtown you could not see this space.”
Wardak is building the tower structure in three parts because of Chicago red tape—you need a permit to build something forty-two feet high, and it can take a year or so to get one. So Wardak and his crew will spend about five weeks building three separate structures—and then rent a crane to put them together as a water tower.
The construction will be done as a “performance” and not be permanent—it will just show how the structure is eventually supposed to look, Wardak explains. The structure can become permanent after the city issues a permit.
Wardak notes that the water tank will not be functional, but “readable as a water tower with a tank at the top.” He imagines that the scaffolding around the tower could be used as performance space, with regular concerts, or lectures to discuss political issues. “I imagine people might say—it’s the last Friday of the month—let’s go to the water tower!”
The tower and tank will be built with Douglas fir, an American wood that looks golden in the sunlight, Wardak says. Later it will weather to gray, and then darken. The scaffolding will be painted or burned black, for contrast.
The tower project will be part of the long-anticipated Englewood Nature Trail, a 1.75-mile multiuse path on land acquired by the city from the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The rail line runs east-west along an elevated berm from about 58th Street and Lowe Avenue to about 58th and Hoyne Avenue. It will serve as a spine of a larger urban agricultural district on adjacent land. The project has about $30 million in federal, state and city funding so far, with a city commitment to issue bonds to make up the rest of the $72 million total cost.
“We’re hoping to create one of Chicago’s most beautiful spaces,” says Anton Seals, Jr., co-founder of Grow Greater Englewood, a community group which along with the Chicago Department of Transportation and the Department of Planning and Development has been working on the concept since 2014. Along with Grow Greater Englewood, the project’s design team includes Gensler, PRI and Botanical City Landscape.
The idea is not to create another Bloomingdale Trail, which has contributed to a gentrification boom pricing out longtime Northwest Side residents, Seals says. He says the Englewood project will develop an agri-eco district that will provide food, jobs and natural beauty to the largely low-income, African American community, improving the lives of the people who live there. This will include small farms, community-managed gardens, and food-related businesses—some are already there.
“This is looking to have a different kind of economic spark, as a result of taking this abandoned infrastructure and turning it into a different kind of public realm,” says Andre Brumfield, global leader of Gensler’s Cities & Urban Design practice.
Seals calls Wardak’s project “exciting” and one that can evolve over time with community input.
“It’s allowing us to think really big about space, and the water tower can be used as a lighthouse, basically,” Seals says. “I think he’s a really interesting artist.”
Construction on the trail itself is expected to start in 2026.