Chicago - Millennium Park | icon 016 | October 2004

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photo: Gautier Deblonde photo: Gautier Deblonde

words Justin McGuirk

Chicago: home of the skyscraper, home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, home of Oprah. This summer the city unveiled its most ambitious piece of urban planning since it hosted the World’s Fair in 1893, and the godmother of daytime TV donated $1 million towards the bill.

Ordinarily that would be newsworthy, but 91 of her fellow citizens donated at least that much, many of them more. In fact, nearly half of the $475m (£260m) it cost to build Millennium Park came from private hands. All of which sends a clear message: this was not one of those public projects foisted on a city for a given administration’s prestige, like London’s Millennium Dome – this was a gift from the people of Chicago to themselves.

Chicagoans are known for their civic pride. America’s third-largest city has a longstanding claim to be the heartland of American architecture, yet there is still that slight sense that it feels the need to puff its chest out at New York and LA – it was Chicago, after all, that until recently boasted the world’s tallest building. But, having cradled the Beaux-Arts, Prairie Style and International Style schools of architecture, Chicago has done little in recent decades to extend that lineage. The construction boom that has been raging since the mid-1990s has just thickened the city with bland condominiums and faceless corporate towers – offices for short-term tenants rather than the signature corporate architecture that made Chicago great.

Chicago’s mayor, Richard M Daley, has been giving the city’s business community carte blanche, studiously avoiding any big-picture planning, even along the shores of the city’s greatest natural asset, Lake Michigan. On the one occasion when Daley did intervene on the lakefront, at Soldier Field stadium, he insisted on retaining the mock-Roman facade, which is so at odds with the new high-tech stadium bowl that the government is threatening to strip it of its landmark status. And yet, to give him credit, this is the man who looked out over a sprawling car park and railway yard in the heart of downtown and saw a park.

Millennium Park is one of the grandest regeneration schemes in recent American history. Yet, as parks go, it is not particularly large. At 24.5 acres, Manhattan’s Central Park could swallow it 35 times over. The grandness is in the price tag, which comes in at $19m an acre. The local newspapers scarcely ceased reminding the mayor of how the budget had tripled and how the project was four years late, even accusing him of corruption over the way the construction contracts were handed out. But it was partly the scale of private interest in the idea of a new park along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile that caused it to balloon into a national showpiece.

By 1999 the plans had evolved to include what is supposedly the most sophisticated open-air auditorium in America, designed by Frank Gehry, and a 140-tonne sculpture by Anish Kapoor. With those kind of names attached, the wealthy citizenry of Chicago began to open their cheque books, while the mayor became a picture of expediency – here, finally, was a universally popular achievement with which to cap off the Daley legacy, begun when his father, Richard J, was mayor.

Millennium Park is not so much a park in the traditional sense of a piece of nature slotted into the urban jigsaw puzzle. It is a theme park, where an aimless stroll is likely to be overtaken by a programme of dizzying attractions. The most attention-grabbing of these is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Chicago’s own trademark Gehry. The original plan was for an auditorium designed by Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, but his rather conventional band shell didn’t wash with the city’s premier family, the Pritzkers, who donated $15m towards the auditorium and brought in Gehry, a former Pritzker Prize laureate, as its designer. As his patrons no doubt hoped, Gehry’s stainless steel petals play off the wall of rigid skyscrapers behind, which now look as though they are having their shins tickled.

The auditorium holds five floors of rehearsal rooms and other facilities but, essentially, it is less of a building than a giant stage set. Viewed from the back, it reads as a conglomeration of curling billboards. A number of these panels are just scaling devices. With a capacity audience of 11,000 stretching back 600 ft from the stage, the key question on Gehry’s mind was how to make the people at the back feel involved. “The way I chose to do it,” says Gehry, “was to make the proscenium bigger and more present. If you took all that stuff away and you had an orchestra here it would look puny from way back there. So there are a few pieces that are kind of decorative, that fill out the composition.”

The inspiration for the design, so Gehry says, was a headdress in a Vermeer painting, though looking at it now it reminds him more of something by his friend Issey Miyake. Some of those bulging folds have an acoustic function, holding in the sound. But the real method Gehry devised to get the sound to what you might call the cheap seats – although all the concerts will be free – is a trellis lined with speakers. The jury is still out as to how effective that is, but the trellis also provides an interesting new window on the city. During a concert your eye wanders the skyline through that latticework and you feel as alive to the city as when the sirens come screaming down Michigan Avenue. With a concert in full swing, one also realises that, as a piece of theatrical design, the pavilion works much better to music.

To the east of the auditorium is another Gehry structure, his first-ever bridge. The BP Bridge, which connects Millennium Park to its 19th- century neighbour, Grant Park, was thrown in to entice Gehry to take on the auditorium. Less attention seeking than the pavilion, the bridge is in some ways more of an unquestionable success. Decked in Brazilian hardwood and clad in brushed stainless steel plates, it meanders its way elegantly along and then across Columbus Drive, blocking out much of the traffic noise. One of the reasons the bridge is so circuitous is that it maintains a 5% incline for easy wheelchair access. But those bends also offer a means of viewing the city, turning you along a guided panorama. People can also gather on the western end and treat it as a balcony for watching concerts.

It is called the BP Bridge because BP donated $5m towards the $14m it cost to build. And that is more or less how it worked with all the other attractions: The Crown Fountain, the Lurie Garden, Wrigley Square and – named in the grand old tradition of American patronage – the Joan W and Irving B Harris Theater for Music and Dance. Millennium Park is a feat of private fundraising largely attributed to one man: John Bryan, the former head of Sara Lee bakeries and now the toast of Chicago. Bryan, as head of the non-profit Millennium Park Inc, lunched his way to a $205m (£112m) commitment from the private sector. In America, unlike in Europe, public projects still rely on private money and in Chicago not just corporations but some of the cities most notable families stepped forward. “It wasn’t just about money,” says Tom Pritzker, “it was also about an idea – everybody got infected by it.” He adds: “Nothing like this could have happened in LA or New York.”

The scale of the donations, however, has meant that Millennium Park is as branded as a shopping mall, even if much of it is personal rather than corporate. In fact, the Pritzkers and the Crowns apparently debated whether to put their names to their endowments and decided that in the future the names of the park’s donors would represent a special moment in the city’s history, when its most privileged citizens decided to give something back. This is not some vague notion of posterity, but a concern made so explicit that Anish Kapoor was told to make a sculpture that would last 1000 years.

While the private money in this public-private partnership was used for the park’s more glamorous manifestations, $270m (£148m) of taxpayers’ money went into the underlying infrastructure. The park tops an underground carpark for 10,000 cars, the revenues from which will return to the public coffers. Other facilities include what has to be the most enlightened bike shed in the world, which comes with lockers and showers for its member commuters.

Four elevator shafts bring drivers up into the park, two of them on either side of Kathryn Gustafson’s Lurie Garden. Gustafson, who designed London’s Diana Memorial, has been responsible for the only genuine piece of landscaping in the park. At this point, with it yet to mature, it is the least exciting of the big name features. But when its thick hedgerows fill out it will become something of a secret garden, where people can tread the kind of decking that once kept the whole city raised above the swamps and mudflats. With its 140 species of perennial plants, it will be perhaps the only space in the park for those not seeking loud visual stimulation.

For those who are, there are two clear destinations: Cloud Gate and the Crown Fountain. Cloud Gate is an ovoid stainless steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor. He called it that because he considered it a gate to the impressive new view of Michigan Avenue and because 60% of the surface reflects the sky, but locals call it “the jelly bean”. The object’s mirrored skin draws the skyline into it so that it becomes a morphed microcosm of the city, and as they approach people are fascinated to see how they too get sucked into what is both a vast and confined space. That kind of personal engagement was all that interested Kapoor. “I hate public sculpture,” he says, “it’s always so polite.” In Cloud Gate, he has tried to live up to the impolite scale of Chicago’s massive public sculptures by Picasso, Oldenburg, Calder and Dubuffet but, in contrast to them and even to the gridded city itself, he has aspired to a kind of perfection. He describes Cloud Gate as a “hole in space”, and it does approach that ineffable quality. Perfection, though, will have to wait till later in the year, when another round of welding and burnishing will make the seams between the metal plates disappear.

South of Cloud Gate is the people’s favourite, or at least the children’s favourite. The Crown Fountain, by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa, is more a piece of urban theatre than a fountain. Two 50-foot towers made of glass bricks face each other across a shallow reflecting pool of black granite. On the inside face of each tower an LED screen displays a random sequence of faces belonging to 1000 Chicagoans. For five minutes each they blink, smile, stare and eventually spout a stream of water onto the heads of the children gathered underneath. Plensa calls the faces “gargoyles” when they suddenly come alive. “You can walk around Rome and see wonderful fountains but the sculptures have been in the same position for centuries,” he says. This fountain is anything but static or predictable, less because of the moving images than because of the tension at its edges between abandon and restraint – between the children rushing under the waterfalls and the adults contemplating whether to stand and watch or get their feet wet. In some ways the Crown Fountain is the legitimised, 21st-century version of the game that has kept America’s urban poor cool in summer since early in the last century: this is letting off the fire hydrants but with a video feed.

Not everything in the park is this contemporary. Anything not specifically commissioned was treated as urban pavement, and the guidelines for these in-between areas were set by the conservative Mayor Daley. Hence the Beaux-Arts acorn-shaped street lamps. At Wrigley Square there is even a classical peristyle with the names of the park’s individual donors inscribed on it. Had there been a single architect masterplanning the park this incongruous blend of old and new would have been unlikely. “A lot of people are more comfortable in historical landscapes,” says Kathryn Gustafson, referring to the park’s outdated trimmings, but they just feel non-comittal. In fact, the trimmings, in the context of all this money and all these shiny objects, prompt a niggling feeling that the park’s overseers knew what to buy but not how to present it.

In one key aspect Millennium Park is a thoroughly contemporary phenomenon. It is not an evocation of picturesque nature in the way Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park is; it does not offer bucolic relief from the industrial city. It is densely packed, like the city itself, and paved with orthogonal routes to key destinations. It is perhaps a post-industrial park, full of stimulating diversions, interactivity and branding, rather in the way a shopping mall is. These are not objects set in landscape the way sculptures and pavilions once were; the landscape is really just the space between the objects. The park might have been a place of natural beauty, of flower gardens and meadows, but that just wouldn’t have said “Chicago”.

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