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Postcard Pablum: The Failure Of Millennium Park

I took a journey through the savage heart of the Chicago dream recently. I visited Millennium Park.

I remain baffled. Is it just me who doesn't see what's so great about Millennium Park? Is it just me who thinks it fails as both art and a park, which pretty much invalidates the whole enterprise? Am I the only one bored with the spectacle and unnourished by the park's tease?

I returned to the park recently to make sure I wasn't crazy, pig-headed, blinded by antipathy to the Daley Administration. I wanted to see. I really did.

I was in and out in 30 minutes. I tried. But the truth is that Millennium Park sucks.

***

Chicago is awash in Millennium Park triumphalism this summer, in part sparked by Timothy Gilfoyle's Millennium Park: Creating A Chicago Landmark, a 442-page history/coffee table book with 361 color illustrations the story-behind-the-story of the park's creation.

I have not read Gilfoyle's book, but reviews and press materials describe a loving history of the controversial, corrupt project that breaks ground in detailing the critical creative choices made by the park's major players.

As Sun-Times architecture critic Kevin Nance wrote last month in his review of Gilfoyle's book:

"The applause for Millennium Park, almost two years after its spectacular opening, is as loud as ever. Firmly ensconced as the jewel of downtown Chicago, the park is almost universally hailed as a major cultural asset, international tourist magnet and engine of economic development - so much so that any bedazzled new visitor might reasonably assume that it was always that way.

"The creation of the $475 million park, which opened in July 2004 four years late and at more than twice its originally projected cost, was fraught with tension among its high-powered participants, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, fund-raiser John H. Bryan and his network of deep-pocket private donors, and architects Frank Gehry and Adrian Smith, among others. At various points along the way, the conflicts over the park's cost, political implications and artistic vision had the potential to substantially alter the final result, if not to scuttle it altogether."

(The Tribune saw fit to publish its (thin) review on the cover of its book section - on Sunday, a month after the book's release, the Sun-Times review, segments on Chicago Tonight and WBEZ's 848, and numerous appearances by the author around town.)

On this we can all agree: Millennium Park is the symbol of New Chicago, the theme park city and yuppie paradise whose entertainment-tourism complex and white-collar base has largely displaced the blue-collar, ethnic-centered, tavern-laden city of neighborhoods.

But is that a good thing?

Or is the mayor and his coaliton of yuppies, empty nesters, and the noveau riche so eager to serve the formidable tourist lobby in their desire to bring new-world glamour to gritty old Chicago that they'll hurl a million cultural spaghetti strands at the wall just to see what sticks?

In other words, "Let's get a Gehry!"

Mayor Richard M. Daley is neither yuppie nor aesthete; instead he is caught in the netherworld between his old Bridgeport and his new South Loop. So it makes a fair bit of sense that Millennium Park is the Central Station of urban parks.

Millennium Park is really not so singular. A lot of other cities have a lot of other pretty cool spaces. (My all-time favorite is the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.) It's not just the tourists who are being played for rubes; it's you. You are not getting what you are overpaying for (and you are paying for it). Don't be so easily impressed.

***

The Gehry. Millennium Park does not fit comfortably into its environs. It is clunky and awkward; even hamhanded. The spitting towers stand over there by the traffic of Michigan Avenue; the Gehry rises like an ugly stainless steel beast over there, at the rising head of the park; the Bean rests above the Park Grill. The pieces have no connection to each other. They are randomly collected, with no interaction or point beyond somebody's idea of what they thought looked good. Even nature is segmented; the Lurie Gardens are hidden away, and the central walkway of the park isn't a park at all but a mediocre concrete mini-mall with uncomfortable, uninviting benches.The park's only real attraction is spectacle and location.

This problem is best exemplified by the Gehry. No matter how popular the Bean, the Gehry is the big daddy of Millennium Park - and it is a bully.

The Gehry's true interaction is not with the other pieces of Millennium Park but with the new Soldier Field. Both are strained attempts to fit big pieces of modern art in locations along the city's front yard where they do not belong. Like Soldier Field, the Gehry is a monstrosity from all sides except one - front on. (Soldier Field is a grand success only from the view most unseen - the east.)

From the stadium seating and lawn, straight on, the Gehry is a relatively stunning frame for the stage, and as a piece of art in itself. I stood at the back of the grass one day when the bandshell sat empty and noticed for the first time that the lowered seating in front disappears from this view, creating creating the appearance from the back that the grass extends to the stage. You can't see the seats in first-class.

That is a triumph.

From all other angles, though, the Gehry resembles not so much the spaceship that is Soldier Field but the wreckage of a spaceship. I'm certain a lot of tourists and citizens feel the same way but, insecurely unschooled in the arts, interpret the mess instead as something profound that they ought to appreciate even if they don't get it. It is gawkable, that's for sure. But art is for wonder. Gawking is for car wrecks. The Gehry is an interstellar overdrive smash-up.

Which is not to say, by the way, that I am opposed to all things Gehry. Somewhere in my clutter I still have a 20-year-old poster of Gehry's Venice beach house. Like the rest of the planet, I marveled at Bilbao. I love the Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

I just find this particular Gehry to be obnoxious and ill-fitting, a Gehry peg where there is no such hole.

I can't say how the bandshell functions acoustically because I've never seen a show there. But I can imagine that actual park land in Millennium Park may have proven to be more satisfying, with the Gehry sited somewhere else - the end of Navy Pier; out floating out in the water; on Northerly Island; south of Soldier Field where the city is now proposing a temporary Olympic stadium. Maybe even in a South Side park or in Bronzeville. Because it certainly doesn't belong where it is.

The BP Bridge. That's BP as in Beyond Petroleum. This is the park's second Gehry piece, the salamander bridge. I find nothing pleasing about this bridge, which, again, doesn't seem to have the room it needs to stretch out and become something.

And when I get to the other side and see a bit of the Grant Park expanse, I'm pulled that way, not back to Millennium Park's oversize trinkets. Grant Park is our treasure. Why hast we forsaken it?

The Lurie Gardens. The gardens are, in a sense, the park's great secret. I rarely hear anyone talking about them, perhaps because they are hard for the casual visitor to find. Too bad, because this should be the whole park! Instead, the gardens are relegated to the back of the lot, penned in like a fake botany lab. It's a tease that doesn't deliver, because no one cared enough to dream of a park in a garden.

The Crown Fountain. Or, as you may know it as, those light tower thingies with the faces. I have mixed feelings. It's cool at first. Then that feeling wears off. Maybe if they changed up the images. (Maybe those towers ought to chart the park's still rising costs. Or feature faces of corrupt pols - apologizing - as part of their sentences.) Maybe if the illusion wasn't destroyed by being able to see the innards of the contraption. Maybe if water didn't spew out of the mouths of the faces lit up on the towers. Because all of that just makes it a gimmick, a big toy. No wonder kids flock there. With all the kids shrieking there - which is great in one sense - I wonder if this shouldn't be on the beach, with sand between the towers, not asphalt. And certainly not along the traffic of Michigan Avenue.

The Bean. The Bean is a triumph. I am not cynical about The Bean.

I fell in love with the Bean from the first renderings that appeared in the newspapers.

I can't argue with the Bean - and I'm not looking for an argument anyway. I wish Millennium Park was cool as hell. It's not. But the Bean is, for all the reasons that have been put out there and more. First, there is something innately pleasing about the shape and reflection. That alone. Second, it's the reflection of that South Michigan Avenue wall that really makes it. Third is the quality of standing under the Bean, and of becoming part of it by doing so. (For a more lyrical account of the Bean, see Natasha Julius's Bean: A Love Story)

Though even the Bean came in at $23 million (making it one of the most expensive sculptures in history) instead of the $6 million originally cited. It will take a lot of postcards to make up that cost.

And, give or take a McDonald's Cycle Center, that's it. You've just come and gone through the greatest park ever. Unless you've been to Humboldt Park, Jackson Park, Garfield Park . . .

***

Millennium Park is a triumph of public relations.

For example, in interviews with civic leaders a few years ago, it wasn't hard to discern the script when virtually each one repeated the notion that once finished Millennium Park would be the new postcard picture of Chicago. And that no matter what the final bill, the cost would be worth it. When I heard my former editor at Chicago magazine repeat that last one one day, I knew the meme had set in.

But is it true? Of course not. At what point, I would ask the citizenry, would it not have been worth it? At $750 million? At a billion?

Let's say you find the current cost of $475 million "worth it." But you would balk at a cool billion.

Well, consider that we're not done paying for Millennium Park yet. Those parking garages aren't bringing in the expected revenue, and the park is operating at a deficit. When all is said and done, a billion dollars may not be out of sight.

Will that be worth it?

Did we at some point decide that the mayor could have a blank check for a downtown park, but not for schools, health care, affordable housing, or a larger, better police force? Or to
maintain the parks we have?

Even the private funding that has gone into Millennium Park comes from somewhere - your employer, perhaps.

What if we put that money and more towards building the greatest schools the planet has ever seen? Couldn't those be the postcards of a new Chicago?

***

The park is an accomplishment. A testament to will. It makes you realize just what can be achieved if the civic leadership truly wants it to happen - against all reason. The Tribune's Blair Kamin once called Millennium Park "a sparkling example . . . of how big cities can get big things done." I see it more as a sparkling example of how anti-democratic machines can't get big things done (Big Dig, anyone?). An imperious mayor with little foresight and a history of bungling big projects had to be bailed out by the private sector to save him and the city from the embarrassment of a park four years and millions of dollars overdue. You can believe the mayor's myth-makers if you want, but the city could have been enriched in many other ways than Millennium Park.

Personally, I miss those old railroad tracks.



Permalink

Posted on July 17, 2006


MUSIC - Pandemophenia.
TV - NBC's Bicentennial Special.
POLITICS - Defund Private Schools.
SPORTS - Beachwood Sports Radio & A Blackhawks Proposal.

BOOKS - The Slave Who Escaped George And Martha Washington.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Flex You.


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