Sentimental journey

Tribune architecture critic

Frank Gehry was beating back some of the buzz about his new music pavilion in Millennium Park: It may look new wave, but it's really old hat, a pale echo of his acclaimed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Gehry got the Chicago project in 1999, two years after Guggenheim's mountain of silvery titanium created a global sensation. He then tried out several alternatives for the music pavilion, including a simple, curving wedge of metal that was a homage to late, great Chicago architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

But his clients rejected that design in favor of his trademark metal shells. And that fueled speculation that Gehry was forced to give Chicago his aesthetic "brand" rather than a less-is-more, Miesian design he supposedly preferred.

Not so, he said.

"I just was interested in what a Miesian kind of thing would have looked like," Gehry explained. "I didn't struggle. I tried it on."

And the result?

"It would have been a one-liner," he said, using the architectural term for a building with superficial appeal — and little else to recommend it.

A custom fit

In every project he does, Gehry said, he tries to take the measure of a city and tailor his famously non-Euclidian forms for a custom fit. Chicago, he concluded, wanted the pavilion to be festive and celebratory — a sort of 21st Century version of playful Buckingham Fountain.

"Does it look like Bilbao?" he asked of the pavilion. "I don't think it does. I've never been able to escape myself."

It was a bright Saturday morning and Gehry was sitting behind the stage of the pavilion, looking through its towering glass stage doors at the trellis-covered seating area where thousands are expected to gather Friday for the pavilion's first concert.

The 75-year-old architect was about to take a walk through his creation and share his thoughts about the design, his first completed work in the city of Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham.

This was going to be, in some respects, a sentimental journey.

When Gehry was a boy, growing up in the gold-mining town of Timmins, Ontario, his father, Irving, supplied bars and restaurants with jukeboxes, pinball games and slot machines; Irving worked with the Mills Novelty Co. on Chicago's West Side, once the nation's largest maker of coin-operated machines.

Gehry made several trips to Chicago with his father and has since come to love the city, favoring such skyscrapers as the corncob-shaped towers of Marina City and the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower.

He has a longtime friendship with architect Stanley Tigerman and with the billionaire Pritzker family, patrons of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which he won in 1989. Recognizing a $15 million donation from the family, his pavilion is named after the late Jay Pritzker.

"Chicago is the greatest city in the world as far as contemporary architecture," Gehry would say at one point during the walk, sounding as though he really meant it and it wasn't just a throwaway compliment.

Leaving the stage, Gehry strode beneath the trellis and confirmed that he had never designed anything like it before.

Formed by a series of curving metal tubes, the trellis is heroically scaled — two football fields long by a football field wide. It forms a domelike space above the music pavilion's outdoor seating area, which consists of a lawn with enough room for about 7,000 people, plus 4,000 fixed seats. Speakers hang from thin steel cables attached to the trellis.

The arrangement, a bold departure from the convention of placing poles in a field of grass and suspending speakers from them, is supposed to provide state-of-the-art sound for an outdoor venue.

Did Gehry work closely with acousticians, as he did at his acclaimed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles?


"They wanted poles," he said, drawing some monotonous, straight lines on his interviewer's yellow legal pad. "They wanted that. I came up with this instead."

Protection from weather

Walking across the lawn, Gehry revealed that he'd like to see the trellis equipped with a layer of weather protection that would make concerts possible even when it rains. His idea: Lightweight fabric that would be stretched over the trellis like a spinnaker.

"I would use sail technology," said Gehry, who, like a lot of other top architects (Helmut Jahn, for one), is a sailor. His Los Angeles-based firm was working on the idea, he said, but it cost $2 million and had to be discarded, at least for now.

Turning to the curving shells of the pavilion, which are covered in stainless steel shingles, Gehry explained that the big burst of metal actually has a function: The bottom parts of the shells (at least the ones directly above the stage) are supposed to project sound outward to the audience. The tops of the shells complete the gesture.

The waves of curvy metal on the side, meanwhile, are there to create a wide, prosceniumlike form. Its large scale is intended to create a clear focus that makes even those sitting at the farthest edges of the lawn feel as if they're a part of whatever concert is being performed.

"If that stuff was cut off, it'd be wimpy," Gehry said.

The shells don't just curve. They fold in a pleatlike pattern that recalls the pleated fabrics of legendary Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake. That's no coincidence. Miyake and Gehry are friends, and the architect designed a 3-year-old, Miyake flagship store in lower Manhattan.

"I told Issey Miyake [the pleats] related to him," Gehry said.

What about the possibility of glare bouncing off the pavilion and forcing everybody in Millennium Park to wear sunglasses?

The polished metal exterior of Gehry's Disney Concert Hall threw off so much reflected light — and heat — after the building opened last year that people in nearby apartments complained the temperature in their apartments had gone up 15 degrees. A portion of the exterior had to be sandblasted to correct the problem.

"I don't think it'll be a problem [here]," Gehry said, "but if there is [a problem], it's not so hard to fix it."

So far, the reflections off the pavilion are bright, but they do not seem blinding and there have been no reports of complaints from people who live and work in nearby high-rises along Michigan Avenue.

Then it was on to the curving bridge, which, like the music pavilion, has a shinglelike covering of stainless steel.

Sound investment

Gehry explained the bridge exists not simply to get people over Columbus Drive, but also to create a sound barrier. It acts like a big earth berm, blocking noise from the busy road and letting Grant Park Symphony concerts at the music pavilion proceed in peace.

"I like the idea of weaving it through the park like a river," Gehry said.

Instead of a typical concrete deck, the bridge has a wood deck that will eventually weather from brown to gray. "I fought hard to get it wood," Gehry said, pointing out that the wood is a nautical touch, comparable to the deck of a sailboat.

What about skateboarders racing over the wood?

"I love it," he said.

The skateboarders, he added somewhat devilishly, would probably try to ride on the sloping sides of the bridge.

And that would be a good thing?

"What the hell?" he said, smiling.

I asked Gehry to explain the difference between this bridge, his first, and the bridges of Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish-born architect-engineer. Calatrava's designs feature tilting pylons, cables that resemble harps and other baroque flourishes that are anything but less-is-more.

Hardly minimal

"I'm perversely more minimal than he is," Gehry replied, laughing, because his explosively sculptural creations are anything but minimal.

"I love minimalism in art. I don't like it in architecture. The thought of living in the Farnsworth House [Mies' minimalist house outside far southwest suburban Plano] would kill me." But on a purely aesthetic level, he said, he loves the Farnsworth House.

Whatever their aesthetic differences, Gehry shares one thing with Mies: a passion for putting God in the details.

Coming to the eastern end of the bridge, he seized on a portion of the sloping stainless steel side wall that turned upward, creating a thin horizontal strip that a parkgoer could easily step on, crumpling the metal. It was designed that way, but he wasn't happy about it.

"This is a little precarious," he said, adding that a little handrail should be put around this section of the bridge to protect it.

Coming back over the bridge toward the music pavilion, he paused for a moment, leaning his elbows on the bridge and staring off into space. For a second, at least, the subject of architecture seemed far away.

"I've talked to you about my coming to Chicago when I was a kid," he said, turning wistful.

He was thinking, he said, about his father.

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