MP3 tour download a walk in the park

Millennium ParkRentalsArts and CultureSculptureGovernmentArchitectureMP3 Players

Millennium Park and its 24.5 acres can appear overwhelming, with the sculpture, the architecture, the landscape and the blur of performance artists and crowds.

But anyone with an iPod or any other MP3 player can now download a free walking tour from the artists and architects of Millennium Park at http://www.millenniumpark.org.

The Chicago Park District's Web site just began offering the audio download that experts say is in the forefront of new technology. The tour includes the voices of architect Frank Gehry and artists Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa, who talk about their work at the park. The audio tour also includes the voice of Mayor Richard Daley, horticulturists and others involved in operations.

Chicago may be the first to undertake such a project for a park, said Celina Nichols, librarian and archivist for the National Recreation and Park Association.

City officials hope to increase the number of younger visitors through the use of downloadable audio tours because they tend to be more familiar with MP3 technology. Companies that create audio tours hope to expand their customer base.

"It'd be pretty cool to know how they made this," Jill Reardon, 23, who was visiting from New York, said Thursday as she stood at the base of Plensa's Crown Fountain. "The hotel where my family is staying has a high-speed Internet connection, and I'd download it."

The technology may be especially fitting at Millennium Park, where people could listen to the download on an MP3 player on different days without needing to worry about returning rented equipment.

The convenience of downloading the tour at home or from a laptop and wearing more discreet ear buds or personal headphones could be the path to a new breed of tourist for the city and a new breed of customer for audio companies, people in the industry say.

Even among new, downloadable audio tours, the Millennium Park tour stands out because it uses the voices of people who created much of the park.

Standing before the 110-ton Cloud Gate sculpture, you not only hear Kapoor interpret his work, but his voice echoes as he makes his way from the front to the interior of the polished metal sculpture known as "the Bean" in Chicago.

"What I wanted to do in Millennium Park is make something that would engage the Chicago skyline so one will feel the clouds kind of floating in with those very tall buildings reflected in the work," he says in the audio tour.

"And then, since it is in the form of a gate, the viewer ... the participant will be able to enter into the work and enter this very deep chamber that does, in a way, the same thing to one's reflection as the exterior of the piece is doing to the reflection of the city."

There are some surprises, too, when listening to artists talk of how they believed their work would be perceived compared to the reality of Millennium Park.

Some of the biggest crowds gather daily around Plensa's Crown Fountain, two 50-foot glass towers separated by a stretch of black granite.

The boisterous chatter and water fights that erupt between the towers seem a far cry from Plensa's initial perception when he says, "It's the tremendous possibility in that project to offer finally to the public space the capacity to talk about the soul."

The recordings capture everyone from Gehry, who insists that his voluptuous Pritzker Pavilion is more function than form, to Lauren Rudy, manager of the popular Millennium Park bike station, as she describes the facilities.

Last winter as city officials discussed giving personal park tours and how they would handle that, Daley brought up audio tours, said Helen Doria, executive director of Millennium Park.

The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and park officials decided they would try something new. The project was put on the fast track and final contracts were completed in spring, Doria said.

Audio tours of cities like London and of some national parks are popping up for sale on such sites as audible.com, but neither Doria nor officials with Audio Antenna, the firm that created the Millennium Park audio tour, could predict if the idea would take hold in a place like Millennium Park.

Smaller tourist spots with less money may find their savior in the new technology.

The Pioneer Square Historic District in Seattle, known for its Victorian-Romanesque architecture, began offering a downloadable tour about two weeks ago for $3.

"We wanted to do an audio tour in years past, but we just couldn't do it because the cost of the hardware was just so high," said Craig Montgomery, executive director of the Pioneer Square Community Association. "This technology is just awesome. It's awesome."

The technology fits right in with the state-of-the-art acoustics at the Pritzker Pavilion and the gigantic LED screens of the Crown Fountain, Doria said.

And though the park is offering MP3 players for rent at $5, Doria hopes the free download takes off.

"This iPod technology reflects the cutting edge that exists here, not just the cutting edge in art, but the technology of the Gehry pavilion, in Crown Fountain, even in the printed materials we use," Doria said.

"We are trying to reflect the nature of what this space is. Besides being cool, this technology is the essence of what Millennium Park is."

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Before you go

WHAT: Millennium Park audio tours.

COST: Free.

WHERE: On the Internet, go to www.millenniumpark.org or www.antennaaudio.com/millenniumpark.shtml

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csheehan@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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