MILLENNIUM PARK: FACES
A transformation and regeneration
Crown Fountain inspired by lake and Buckingham
Crown Fountain sculptor Jaume Plensa displays a glass block used to build twin towers in the 232-feet-long reflecting pool. (Tribune photo by Geoffrey Black)
What, then, is Crown Fountain, the piece Plensa designed for Millennium Park near the corner of Monroe Drive and Michigan Avenue?
"Some pieces should be just an intimate part of something else," Plensa said. "Other pieces should take a space and transform it, regenerate the area. That is [meant to] happen here.
"The area is really hard in some ways. So I thought a meeting place was needed. My obsession was to give incredible attention to the emptiness. People might think, ah, the towers are his piece. No. No. It's the whole area. Even if it's empty, the emptiness is my work. But I wanted to add life. All the main colors around are gray or brown. I wished to introduce real color and light and movement."
'Body and soul'
The "body" through which Plensa sought to achieve this he speaks of the piece in terms of "body" and "soul" is composed of two glass-block towers, both 50 feet high, facing each other across a reflecting pool 232 feet long. All of the plaza, including the pool, is covered with black granite from Africa. On either side of the 48-foot-wide pool will be timber benches (the design is still being worked out); they, in turn, will be framed by trees and other plantings.
Three sides of the towers will have changing colors: red, orange, yellow, light green, dark green, light blue, dark blue, purple and white. On the sides of the towers facing each other are LED screens that will flash 1,000 portrait heads of ethnically and racially diverse Chicagoans, ages 7 to 80, recorded by staff of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Each face will be visible for 12 minutes before it spouts water from the mouth for an additional minute. The faces then will fade into color before being separated by close-ups of natural phenomena.
Plensa, 48, was invited to do the $17 million project early in 2000, after a competition involving him, sculptor Maya Lin and architect Robert Venturi. A native of Barcelona who divides his time between there and Paris, Plensa had had two exhibitions in Chicago and knew of the city's relationship to Lake Michigan as well as its pride in Buckingham Fountain. For his largest public piece in the United States a smaller one is in Jacksonville, Fla. he chose to use the fountain and water as a metaphor, as he had a decade ago for a modest piece in England.
From our mouths
"My first idea was, What can a fountain be today?" Plensa said. "I thought it probably would be conditioned by former times when faces of gods were used as the basis. The mouth was where the water came out. This was a beautiful idea: the faces gave life. All cultures use the inspiration that probably the best of us comes from our mouth.
"In Rome is the very beautiful Fountain of the Four Rivers. Every river is represented by a god. For 500 years the carved gods are in the same positions. Today technology allows me to represent people alive. And we don't need a god. We need an anonymous person living in the city. That is the real 'god-ness' today. This was the idea to use the faces, and I added one of my dreams, which was to walk on water, since I don't swim.
"The pool is the reservoir for the two towers. It collects water flowing down the towers. The pool is [about 2½ feet] deep, but at the top, flowing over the granite, it's only one-eighth of an inch. I wished to share my dreams with the people here, to say, please, come to my piece and walk on the water. It's a great experience to feel humidity because it's a female aspect in nature. It penetrates the Earth and helps create life. A fountain has also that idea, and it is part of the 'soul' of my piece."
The plan is to add 500 or 1,000 more faces every five years, depending on the economy. However, he is especially pleased that the Crown Family has created a foundation to maintain the piece and its underground computerized control center for 30 years.
"I'm curious to see if people will feel that it's not only a piece but also an attitude with a public space," Plensa said. "If the piece disappears in the landscape, I'm much happier because a city is crowded with visual elements. To penetrate the city and the mentality of the people this piece is, I think, in that direction. I hope."