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American Society of Landscape Architects


November 2004 Issue

Fair Game on Lake Michigan
In Millennium Park, three for the show and a fourth full of promise.

By Allen Freeman

Thanks to four big attractions, Chicago's new Millennium Park is a little fair of contemporary design. Most prominent is Frank O. Gehry's Bilbao-style billowing aluminum orchestra shell. It's a crowd pleaser, as is Gehry's latticework speaker trellis spanning the lawn in front of the shell and his scaly, serpentine pedestrian bridge over Columbus Drive. Chicagoans quickly took a shine to the park's second big draw, London-based Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, a highly reflective sculpture, and kids eagerly splash through the third, Spanish artist Jaume Plensa's surreal fountain that makes gargoyles of everyday faces projected on a pair of giant TV screens.

Fair Game on Lake Michigan

The park's fourth big deal, Lurie Garden, is quieter and more esoteric. Indeed, some visitors don't quite know what to make of the conceptual landscape by Kathryn Gustafson of Seattle-based Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, Dutch plants expert Piet Oudolf, and Los Angeles theatrical set designer Robert Israel. Lurie Park will have to mature for several years to become fully appreciated. If the city maintains Oudolf's plantings at the level they demand—and a $10 million endowment should take care of that—the competition-winning garden promises to come into its own. In a fanciful new park with a lot of wow factor, Lurie Garden is the sleeper.

The 24.5-acre Millennium Park opened in late July. It is a landscaped lid on an underground public parking garage, like San Francisco's 2.6-acre Union Square or Pittsburgh's 1.37-acre Mellon Square on steroids. The cost, too, is Chicago sized: $475 million, funded by the city and a handful of Chicago-based individuals, foundations, and corporations. They paid for top names: Gehry, Kapoor, Plensa, and Gustafson/Oudolf/Israel produced ambitious works. And each park component is exquisitely executed. If at first the attractions seem like bright and tasty M & Ms in a bland cookie, that perception will probably change as Millennium Park settles in and becomes more integrated with its surroundings. Meanwhile, we stroll through and admire the cool stuff.

Conceived for the third millennium, the landscape occupies the northwest corner of a much larger park named for the 18th president, Illinois native Ulysses S. Grant. Architect Daniel Burnham and landscape architect Edward Bennett envisioned a lakefront park on landfill 95 years ago as part of their beautifying Plan of Chicago, and Bennett followed up between 1915 and 1922 with a Beaux-Arts design for Grant Park. Millennium Park extends over a six-block superblock south from Randolph Drive to Monroe Street (at the north edge of the Art Institute) and east of North Michigan Avenue to Columbus Drive. The site is the logical gateway into Grant Park from the north end of the Loop and from points north on Michigan Avenue, but Bennett only planned a narrow strip of landscape next to Michigan Avenue; the remainder was devoted to a wide north-south swath of railroad tracks on lower land, plus an existing seawall running diagonally across the southeast corner. In recent years, as the railroads eliminated tracks, the view down from sidewalks and skyscrapers became a large gravel parking lot bisected by a couple of tracks.

After World War II, the railroads sold the air rights north of Randolph Drive, and the resulting row of skyscrapers east of Michigan Avenue—including the Prudential and the Amoco—now defines Grant Park's northern edge. Chicago took control of contested air rights immediately south of Randolph Drive (notwithstanding lawsuits by Illinois Central) in the 1990s, and city hall commissioned the Chicago office of Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) to design a 16-acre park, including an orchestra shell. Along with the Michigan Avenue strip, the park would cover the superblock, extending Burnham and Bennett's Beaux-Arts aesthetic.

In 1998, Mayor Richard M. Daley asked architect Edward K. Uhlir, who was near retirement after 25 years with the Chicago Park District, to manage construction of the new park. Taking a critical look at SOM's plan, Uhlir concluded that the Randolph-Michigan intersection was not a place for a "slavish reinterpretation of Burnham's Beaux-Arts plan"; that SOM's design was insufficiently integrated into the rest of Grant Park; and that the park, which called for "many stairs and over-walks" in Uhlir's words, would attract lawsuits based on federal accessibility standards. When Daley agreed to reconstruct the underground garage beneath the landscape along Michigan Avenue, the area to be included in the new park grew to nearly 25 acres.

Parking revenue would pay off the bonds needed for garage construction, but the park on top should be privately financed, the mayor concluded. He turned to John H. Bryan, the retired chairman of Sara Lee Corporation, who in 1990 had headed a drive that raised $100 million for the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony. "Lakeside Gardens" was the name on som's plan, but Bryan felt he needed a more resonant moniker. An advertising agency came up with "Garden of the Arts" and "Millennium Park," and consumer research showed that "Garden of the Arts" was the more popular of the two. "'Garden of the Arts' seemed to distinguish it right," Bryan told journalists during the park's opening week, "but the truth of it is that I didn't like the name.... I just didn't want to meet somebody in the 'Garden of the Arts.' It sounds elitist. 'Millennium' had become trite with overuse, but as we move away from the millennium, it will seem less so.... And it is easy to remember."

Bryan created the nonprofit Millennium Park, Inc., set a minimum donation level of $1 million, and started asking for funds. A selling point, he said, was that the park would offer an opportunity to redefine the city, "to bring the world's best artists, designers, and architects to Chicago to build icons." The really big donors would get icon naming rights: hence, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the BP Pedestrian Bridge, the SBC Plaza, Lurie Garden, and so forth.

Meanwhile, Uhlir worked on the design. Because the wall of early skyscraper facades on the west side of Michigan Avenue lies within a city historic district, he concluded that the park should retain SOM's Beaux-Arts formality along its western edge. "We thought it was important to maintain the double row of elm trees and some of the entry points that face Michigan Avenue," he said. "Beyond a certain point, though, we felt we could abandon that while still maintaining [the park's] formal, axial relationships."

When I walked thorough Millennium Park in late July, the resulting layout proved disorienting, which could be blamed partly on the roping off of large areas for VIP events associated with the park's opening. Other than Gehry's orchestra shell, which billows up into view from the Loop along the Washington Street axis, the casual visitor entering from Michigan Avenue gets few cues about what to expect within. A couple of east-west double allées of pear trees (Pyrus calleryana 'Chanticleer')—extensions of Washington and Adams Streets into the park—lead to a walkway bisecting the park north to south. Beyond lies Gehry's orchestra shell and lawn and Gustafson's garden.

The east-west paths create three rooms in the west half of the park. Pedestrians strolling into the park at the northwest corner may feel they are entering from the backdoor. There, Wrigley Square re-creates an Edward Bennett landscape that occupied this corner from 1917 until 1953. The little square's main draw—anachronistic and dull in the context of the park's new attractions—is a neoclassical peristyle, 20 percent smaller than Bennett's, that faces south, away from Randolph Drive, and presents its west flank to Michigan Avenue. Wrigley Square feels like something to move through quickly.

More welcoming, immediately to the south, is McCormick Tribune Plaza. It offers a restaurant with outdoor tables and chairs during warm weather and an ice-skating rink in winter. Up one level in the direction of the center of the park, Kapoor's 66-foot-wide, 33-foot-high Cloud Gate sculpture dominates SBC Plaza. The sculpture's skin of polished stainless steel, wrapped into an elliptically arched form, reflects and distorts a wide panorama, including the sky, Michigan Avenue's wall of skyscrapers, and the people walking around and under the 110-ton piece. Cloud Gate, sometimes called the "Jelly Bean," has drawn appreciative crowds from the day the park opened, and it could supplant the giant Picasso sculpture, placed in the Loop's Civic Center Plaza in 1967, as Chicago's most popular icon.

The other top contender for Chicagoans' affection, Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, occupies Millennium Park's southwest corner at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Drive. Two 50-foot-high glass towers rise from a shallow, black-granite pool. LED screens cover the towers' facing elevations. One at a time, the screens display giant video close-ups of a thousand Chicago faces; each video take shows a few minutes of smiles and blinks and ends with real water spouting at the rate of 11,520 gallons per minute from the mouth in the video portrait, effectively turning pleasant faces into gushing gargoyles. "The artist is saying in a sort of playful but thought-provoking way that here we momentarily become the givers of life, which he feels to be one of the most profound desires," according to a Millennium Park press release. Perhaps more profound is the fact that a battalion of technicians made Plensa's bizarre concept work.

Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion and its lawn take up much of the park's eastern half. During the park's opening week, Gehry told journalists that he sized the Pritzker orchestra shell, which faces south to direct sound away from the residential high-rises on the north side of Randolph Drive, much larger than acoustically required to make the audience on the lawn feel a part of the performance.

From in front of the 120-foot-tall proscenium, concert attendees may appreciate the pavilion's theatricality while feeling, as I do, that the design is much less affecting as a three-dimensional sculptural object. The massive, irregularly placed struts required to hold the billowing aluminum sheets in place are visible from points west, north, and east, both inside and outside the park. They also lack the rhythm and grace of, say, bridge construction, or—an example close at hand—Gehry's curving latticework of stainless steel pipes that spread over the 95,000-square-foot lawn behind the fixed seats.

Of the overarching steel pipes, Gehry explained: "All we needed to do was hang speakers, spaced on a 70-foot grid, over the lawn. It would have been easy to do on posts, but a forest of little skinny columns would have been cheesy looking. I convinced the mayor that for $6 million we could make it classier and create a sense of space and volume." It works. There are 4,000 fixed seats in the bowl close to the stage, the lawn can accommodate up to 7,000 additional attendees, and even from the back of the lawn, one feels part of the show.

Gehry's serpentine BP Pedestrian Bridge and its ramped approach meander alongside the lawn, giving the performance space an edge, helping to deflect traffic noise welling up from Congress Drive on the east side of the lawn and pavilion. The bridge approach also offers a good vantage point for the stage. (The entrance to another park venue, architect Tomas Beeby's 1,500-seat Harris Theater for music and dance, rears up behind the pavilion, facing Randolph Drive. The underground theater and open-air pavilion share backstage facilities.)

For the final piece of the Millennium puzzle—Lurie Garden in the southeast corner of the park—Kathryn Gustafson and Robert Israel came up with thematic concepts, the placement of paths, and the shapes of perennial beds. Piet Oudolf designed the beds themselves; they contain a total of 26,000 perennial plants in 250 varieties native to the prairie. The purpose is to tell city people what they are missing in the countryside, Oudolf said in July during a Millennium Park garden symposium at the Art Institute.

The garden lies between Gehry's pavilion and entrances (stairs and elevators) to the parking decks below. The thought of several thousand attendees exiting concerts en masse on the way to their cars was one form giver, resulting in cross-circulation paths through the garden as well as the idea of segregating the through-the-garden paths from the perennial beds, a little like highways through the prairie.

Another design source was Gustafson's idea that the garden should present a solid edge against the back of the lawn, a passive space. "The immediate need was to fill that space next to the lawn so that you are not repeating a void next to a void," she told journalists in July. A hedge along that edge of the garden was Israel's idea. "Robert said, 'It should be a secret garden inside a high hedge,'" Gustafson said. "Later we got the idea that the hedge represents shoulders"—as in the city with broad shoulders. That northern edge is called the shoulder hedge. A metal framework or armature, averaging 14 feet tall, prefigures the mature hedge and will provide a clipping guide. "It is also based on a practice, called pre-figuration, of André Le Nôtre's for the gardens at Versailles," Gustafson elaborated during the Art Institute symposium. "Le Nôtre prefigured all the hedges with wood so that Louis XIV could imagine what his gardens would look like."

By expressing the vertical history of its site, the garden symbolizes the city: Both Chicago and the park were built on a marshy lake shoreline that became a rail yard. The railroads were laid on rubble contained by the old sea wall that still extends across the site's southeast corner under the garage. Slicing diagonally through the garden, a boardwalk suspended over water expresses the seawall below. The diagonal seam divides the garden into two so-called plates—one planted in muted colors representing the marshy landscape of the past, and the other planted in lighter, brighter colors, representing the built landscape of the present and future.

The whole garden slopes slightly, as if on a tray, down toward Monroe Street along the south edge. The tilt anticipates the view from a future addition to the Chicago Art Institute, designed by Renzo Piano, to be built opposite the garden on the south side of Monroe Street. From the upper stories of the addition, Lurie Garden with its abstract shapes and combination of bright and muted perennials should resemble a tilted, abstract canvas.

As with other Gustafson gardens, this one might seem overconceptualized and maybe a little too precious, but when the hedges grow to their full height and the perennials are at their painterly best, the garden may well prove its designers' wisdom. If so, you may want to make a trip to Chicago just to see Lurie Garden.

Project Credits
Owner: City of Chicago. Client: Millennium Park, Inc. Client representative: Edward K. Uhlir. For Lurie Garden: Design team: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (lead design), Piet Oudolf (perennial planting), Robert Israel (conceptual review). Landscape architect: Terry Guen Design Associates. Structural and consulting engineers: McDonough Associates and KPFF. Contractor: Walsh Construction. Project manager: Spectrum Strategies. Fountain design: CMS Collaborative. Lighting design: Schuler & Shook. Mechanical and electrical engineer: EME. Irrigation Design: Jeffrey L. Bruce & Company. Specifications: ArchiTech. Cost estimating: David Langdon Adamson. Donor: Lurie Family Foundation (Ann Lurie). For Jay Pritzker Pavilion and BP Pedestrian Bridge: Architect: Gehry Partners. Project management: U.S. Equities Development. Structural engineer: Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Mechanical and electrical engineer: McDonough Associates. Theater consultant and lighting designer: Schuler & Shook. Acoustical consultant and audio systems design: The Talaske Group. Contractor: Walsh Construction.

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