The Millennium Park effect

NEW CATCH PHRASE was in the air after Frank Gehry's shimmering Guggenheim Museum made its spectacular debut eight years ago in the tattered shipbuilding city of Bilbao, Spain: "the Bilbao effect." The term, which sounded like weather forecasting jargon, spoke to the way a dazzling avant-garde work of architecture could instantly warm a city's artistic and business climates, attracting tourists by the planeload and turning a forgotten industrial outpost into a world cultural mecca.

Now, as Millennium Park approaches its first birthday on July 16, Chicago has a fresh variation on that theme: "The Millennium Park effect."

The joyful postindustrial playground, which has brazenly discarded the old industrial age model of the serene urban park, is blowing equally strong winds of change across the cityscape that surrounds it, altering a museum's plans, boosting real estate prospects and (perhaps) opening doors for more innovative architecture in a city whose design scene had grown stale as recently as a decade ago. It has emerged as a sparkling example, despite its widely publicized delays and cost overruns, of how big cities can get big things done.

In the national conversation, Millennium Park is being hailed in some quarters as an example of how business and political leaders can pull together -- in sharp contrast to the feuding among powerful interests that has turned the rebuilding of ground zero into a textbook case of civic inertia. "One of the great new models for a new kind of urban park," The New Yorker's architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, told television host Charlie Rose on Rose's show in May.

For those who live with it every day, it may be just as important that Millennium Park has begun to fulfill its social promise, evolving into a widely used public space, one that is as receptive to the brown bagging Loop office worker as the tourist intent upon gawking at "The Bean," formally known as Cloud Gate.

It is impossible to construct anything this ambitious -- a 24.5-acre park, built as a "green roof" over working commuter railroad tracks and parking garages, that is filled with eye-popping contemporary art and architecture and cost roughly half a billion dollars -- without stirring controversy. Indeed, other members of the architectural commentariat have variously tagged the park as a theme park for adults, a sculpture garden on steroids, and a "yes, but" saga, as in "yes, it's great, but the process that led to it (the park opened four years behind schedule and well over its original $150 million budget) was a mess."

Yet all those arguments are easily refuted, and, besides, the evidence of Millennium Park's broader impact is impossible to deny:

- It was there when the Art Institute of Chicago, having already shifted the location of its new wing from a site south of the museum to another plot on its north (right across from Millennium Park), announced last month that it intends to build a superlong footbridge that will link the park to its new wing by Italian architect Renzo Piano.

- It was there when a developer revealed this spring that the park's vitality helped persuade him to build a 90-story tower that includes a posh Mandarin Oriental Hotel just to the park's north.

- It was there when a study prepared for the City of Chicago predicted in April that the park would provide a $1.4 billion boost to residential development in the surrounding East Loop area during the next 10 years, as measured by the increased value per square foot of properties and the number of units to be built.

- It was there last year when the innovative plan for a new Spertus Institute, which calls for a facade of folding glass to be slipped into the historic Michigan Avenue street wall, sailed through the city approvals process, something that would not have happened 10 years ago, when the city was locked in the iron grip of aesthetic traditionalism.

- And it is there in the thick crowds on the sidewalks south of the Michigan Avenue Bridge -- once-scruffy territory where, not long ago, shoppers from the fancy North Michigan Avenue retail district wouldn't have dared tread.

To be sure, Millennium Park remains a work in progress and is far from perfect -- the adventurous Lurie Garden still needs time to mature, the black-glass Exelon pavilions (including a new visitor center) look drearily Darth Vaderish, there are too many officious security guards decked out in bright yellow shirts, and the kidney bean-shaped, skyline-reflecting Cloud Gate won't be finished until the end of the summer (or later). "It's costing a million dollars a month," laments John Bryan, the former Sara Lee Corp. chairman who heads the private sector group that raised more than $200 million for the park from individual and corporate donors.

But the park seems, if anything, to be gaining in popularity, rather than falling victim to the "been there, done that" syndrome of tourists with short attention spans.

In a sense, the front-page news treatment given to stories about the Cloud Gate delay shows how deeply the park's chief icon has embedded itself within Chicago's civic psyche. More important, the park's new emphasis on humanizing the spaces in between its icons means that it offers something more than spectacle -- and that it is well on its way to achieving its potential as a great democratic space, a mixing chamber for people of different races and classes, who normally live entirely segregated from one another.

That shift is most evident at the Crown Fountain by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, where extra-long cedar benches were installed last fall to give parkgoers a place to sit as they watch the human gargoyles spit water from the twin glass-block towers. Unfortunately, the benches already have cracks in them and may get worse after enduring more of Chicago's notorious freeze-and-thaw cycles. But for now, they are lined with people, and the fountain, more than ever, is an instant piazza, an urban stage where the players are the children running through the fountain (and getting soaked when the gargoyles do their thing) and the audience consists of everybody else, including downtown office workers who want to be where the action is.

Maybe it's the universal appeal of watching kids cool themselves in the water on a hot summer day -- the oasis phenomenon, let's call it -- but, for whatever reason, people drop the guard they usually have up.

"Is the water cool?" a woman sitting on one of the benches asks a little girl, who dries herself off after running through the fountain. "I don't think I can come back to work wet." Parks work best when they give people lots of choices about what kind of spaces to inhabit -- action-filled or contemplative, grand or intimate. And Millennium Park is getting better at that, notably in the new Boeing Galleries just east of the Crown Fountain and Wrigley Square, a pair of understated, granite-paved outdoor spaces that serve as a display area for exhibitions, like an intriguing collection of aerial photographs of the Chicago area by Terry Evans that's now on view.

Of equal interest has been the way the park's existing spaces, like the great lawn that spreads southward from Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion, have assumed new identities as people work them into their daily routine. The lawn now serves as an old-fashioned meadow, a passive park space where people picnic, read a book, throw a Frisbee or a baseball, or just stare up at the sky (or the skyline) through the domelike steel trellis that sweeps over the lawn. Who would have thought it -- Gehry's dynamic baroque architecture, which always seems to be careering toward chaos, offering a respite from the raucous interactive atmosphere of the Crown Fountain? It's been equally surprising that Gehry's pavilion, which was expected to be the park's centerpiece, has been upstaged by Cloud Gate, which now ranks with the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza as a symbol of Chicago.

It is this design quality, plus its openness to it surroundings to the way it echoes the tangled run-up to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago's Jackson Park, that defeat the arguments leveled against it:

- A theme park for adults? No Disneyesque stage set, no matter how skillful its artifice, can match the artistry of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate or the architecture of Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion. Theme parks cordon themselves off from the world; Millennium Park sits right at the doorstep of one of the world's great cities, and there is no charge to enter it. Millennium Park is an art park, not a theme park; a real public space, not a gated fantasyland.

- A sculpture garden on steroids? Millennium Park's large-scale sculptures could not be more different from those in an old-fashioned sculpture garden, where people simply walk around and stare at what they see. And their colossal scale is absolutely necessary; without it, they would be dwarfed by the skyscrapers that line Millennium Park. They are, in short, interactive rather than unapproachable, appropriately monumental rather than bizarrely colossal.

- A great result marred by a failed process? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Consider the rancor that preceded the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. There was wrangling over where to hold the fair in Chicago before Jackson Park was chosen; rancor over Daniel Burnham's selection of leading Eastern architects from Chicago architects who felt overlooked; on-the-fly shifts from stone to staff as the facade material for the fair's major buildings in order to save time; and the delayed opening of the fair's centerpiece, the first Ferris wheel. All that places Millennium Park's expensive, delay-inducing shift from its original, timid Beaux-Arts plan into proper perspective: The park, like the 1893 fair, is an instant city. And such cities do not unfold neatly, as in an urban planning textbook. Building cities is a messy business under any circumstances. It is treacherously complicated when you do it all at once. Delays and cost overruns are practically inevitable.

Perhaps because of the recovery that followed the Great Fire of 1871, it is in Chicago's blood to build such instant cities, to brawl over them as they are under way and to dazzle the world with them once they are done. That is what Millennium Park is doing, although the jury is still out on whether it will be the leading edge of an architectural renaissance or a fleeting exception to the mediocrity of the current building boom. Whatever the outcome, "the Millennium Park effect" is making itself felt just one year into the park's life.

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bkamin@tribune.com

Interactive tour of Millennium Park, go to chicagotribune.com/millennium

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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