Wednesday, July 21, 2004

A 'Millennium' even more overrated than Y2K?

Millennium Park, Chicago's huge public works project that began construction in 1998 finally opened last weekend to great fanfare.  The park is a private-public initiative--about half its funds came from public dollars and the other half came from wealthy donors like Oprah Winfrey, the Pritzkers (proud namesakes of the Jay Pritzker Pavillion), and the park's head fundraiser, former Sara Lee CEO John Bryan.     

Construction of Gehry's pavillion
Millennium Park is certainly a feat in many ways.  First of all, it turned a former unsightly and unproductive railyard into a grand public space.  It also advances Chicago's already solid reputation as a city that welcomes and inspires architectural grandeur of many styles and origins.  Among the architectural contributions to the park: Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture--known far and wide as The Bean, and Frank Gehry's musical pavillian and great lawn.  As Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Camin desribes it, the pavillion appears "with its stainless steel shells suggesting waves of sound washing over the audience" (A no place transformed into a grand space ; What was once a gritty, blighted site is now home to a glistening, cultural spectacle that delivers joy to its visitors).   Kamin's review of the park unfortunately is a bit over-the-top.  He has very few criticisms of the park.  I only hope for the City of Chicago's sake that they commission him to right the Millennium Park offical brochure. 
"Cloud Gate," aka The Bean, has received much attention, much of it positive.  The Chicago Tribune has been an especially avid booster of the Bean, writing overly cute articles about its naming process (Naming the Bean) with descriptions like this one of how the sculpture "lures, mystifies and delights visitors with its fun-house distortion game" (picture caption).
Millennium Park reminds me a lot of Chicago's Worlds Columbian Exposition of 1893.  It seems a very conflicted public work, just as the 1893 fair was.  While architect and planner Daniel Burnham and the other distinguished architects who he won over to the project sought to create an overwhelming set of neo-classical structures that would introduce the rest of the world to Chicago's status as a first class city, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted (who designed Central Park, among many, many other projects) wanted to create a natural and publicly accomodating fairground. 
The Peristyle: one of Millennium Park's successes
Millenium Park suffers the Burnham-Olmsted conflict.  On the one hand, it is open for the public, with architecture is not merely cold and detached from its landscape--as "Cloud Gate" and the fountain suggest, but rather the public space is enhanced and encouraged by the architecture.  However, the park also seems to have an air of iconoclasm about it--more a monument to Frank Gehry and Jay Pritzker than to the city.  Of course, these men and the park's other patrons should be honored for their irreplaceable contribution, but since the public contributed 270 million to the park, can't there be a pavillion named after the people of Chicago?  Should are public spaces be monuments to individuals or monuments to the beauty and excitement of public-spiritded works of art?

One last note: with Illinois' and Chicago's current budget crisis (yesterday, for instance, the CTA was saying it might cut routes and raise fares because of a huge deficit in its budget), Millennium Park should not have received as much public financing as it did.  Even if it began in 1998, when states were experiencing surpluses and other financial boons, the city would only be irresponsible not to consider that a deficit could be just around the corner.  I don't know about you, but I could do without The Bean if it meant more investment in the city's public schools and transportation system.

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