Millennium Park - After the Hype
 -by Lynn Becker

Millennium Park - it's big, it's pretty; it's wildly popular. Does it make any difference? (originally published in somewhat different form under the title "Inspiration or Exception" in the Chicago Reader, September 3, 2004)

July 16th will be remembered as the day the Bilbao effect took Chicago. Just as Frank Gehry's new Guggenheim Museum transformed that Spanish city into an international destination, the opening of Millennium Park was Chicago's biggest global press splash since Steve Bartman, and a lot less embarrassing. A bit too eager to join the celebration, local media coverage has been light on analysis, and key questions remain only lightly explored. What lessons does Millennium Park teach us? What cautionary tales? Will it further energize a Chicago architectural revival, or is a last hurrah in a time when standards continue to nose?dive?

Perhaps a good place to begin is by debunking a couple of the giddier notions that gained circulation in the general inebriation. The most glaring is the incessant PR mantra that it doesn't matter that the park was fours years behind schedule and that its cost more than tripled, to $475,000,000. In the long run, we are told, people won't remember the cost or struggle, only how good the park is. "Yes, and in the long run we are all dead," is how economist John Maynard Keynes once refuted a similarly shaky notion. It's hard to shake the impression that the hype over Millennium Park is being used to gloss over the Daley administration's failings. "You guy's are so lucky to have him as mayor," Frank Gehry lectured a capacity audience at the Art Institute's Rubloff auditorium on July 23rd. His effusiveness was understandable - he's usually seen the mayor at his best behavior, and he's charitably forgotten the 2001 press conference where Daley had attempted to blame the park's mounting costs on delays by Gehry in submitting his designs, although apparently the architect's drawings for the music pavilion had been in the city's possession for about a year.

Although it finished in a blaze of glory, Millennium Park needs to be remembered as an object lesson in how not to do such a project. When the mayor announced, in March of 1998, what was then called "Lakefront Gardens", it was basically a $66,000,000 parking garage over the old Illinois Central railroad tracks with a fairly simple covering of parkland that was to include a new outdoor concert space, to be finished by summer of 2000 (hence "Millennium Park." Even better, Daley announced that the entire $150,000,000 cost - minus $30,000,000 to be raised from private donors - would be covered by revenues from the new garage.

The scripted excuse at last month's opening of the park was that the explosion in costs was a simple matter of adding things as the project went along. Half true, half PR bs. Reasonable people could be excused for entertaining doubts about the wisdom of trying to tackle so major a project in little more than two years, but of course, no one says "No" to Richard M. Daley. As an August 2001 Chicago Tribune expose revealed, the rush to complete the park by the deadline the mayor had set resulted in construction starting before final drawings were completed. Early work was characterized by an aura of frenzied improvisation, since the components of the park were changing almost daily. The caissons originally built to support the foundation proved inadequate to the task and had to be strengthened. After the Gehry bandshell was added to the mix, another 17 caissons had to be added to support its weight. Bringing in the Harris Music and Dance Theater to the park required eliminating 250 parking slots from the garage, along with the revenue they were to have produced. Many of the garage columns cracked and had to be repaired. After a big storm in 2002, both the theater and the garage flooded. The original contractor was fired and filed a $47,000,000 lawsuit, which the city is still fighting; two other contractors have also filed suits, still pending, seeking $16,000,000 to compensate then for the extra expense they claim to have incurred dealing with the project's myriad design changes.

By the time the garage opened, its cost had soared to almost $100,000,000, but the bad news didn't end there. Once in operation, revenues fell far short of the city's projections and woefully below the amount required to make the payments on the bonds that had funded construction. The city had to kick in over $3,000,000 at the beginning of 2002 to make up the difference. No longer able to claim that public money wasn't being used to fund the park, the administration now revised its spin to claim that no neighborhood property tax revenue was being tapped.

This new turn of phrase was intended to deflect attention from the emerging reality that the park that would fund itself now required the city to divert what would ultimately add up to $95,000,000 from the Central Loop TIF (tax increment financing) fund, created in 1984 to rescue the eastern half of the Loop, which the city had declared to be a "blighted" area. A TIF siphons off property taxes from general revenues to restricted funds designed to spur development. Central Loop TIF money went to the de?malling of State Street, the restoration of the Oriental, Palace and Goodman theaters, and bailing out the fiscal sinkhole that is Block 37, where last year the city paid $32,500,000 to repurchase vacant land it had sold to a developer in 1989 for $12,500,000. The city found a way to tap funds for Millennium Park even though the park wasn't actually even in the Central Loop TIF district.

TIF money is city tax revenue, and blowing off questions about the cost overruns at Millennium Park with the answer that neighborhood tax revenue was untouched is a cynical fiscal shell game. As reported in July by Crain's Chicago Business, the city's 135 TIF districts now siphon off revenues from 16% of the city's tax base, and they're sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars of unspent funds. Today the city, schools, and CTA are all running headlong into the red - the city's 2005 budget is projected to include a $220 million deficit and the $95 million in TIF funds that covered the overruns at Millennium Park could have gone a long way toward plugging that gap. The park's journey from self-sustaining asset to giant sucking machine can't be ignored. Chicagoans will be paying for the mistakes at Millennium Park for a long time to come. If we allow them to be erased from memory, how much more likely will be that we'll walk into the same traps again?

Moving to the architectural perspective, a second doubtful preposition is that Frank Gehry's Jay Pritzker bandshell is a great building. If you want to experience a truly great Frank Gehry work, visit the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which would had been astonishing even if it had been surfaced, as initially conceived, in limestone, rather than in the same shimmering stainless steel also found on the Pritzker bandshell. At the Disney, the various rounded and billowing shapes are not mere false?front caprice, as they are in Chicago, but reflect the actual form of the concert hall and other spaces within the complex. . In Chicago, we seemed less interested in Frank Gehry the great architectural thinker than in Frank Gehry, proprietor of the Bilbao Effect gift shop, full of swooping, shiny baubles that become an instant branding device for any city that buys one, ready to be inscribed on keychains, t-shirts and other tschotkes.

Millennium Park's signature image is clearly the pavilion's gigantic stainless steel proscenium, which, no matter how pretty we may find it or how well it photographs, is still basically a $20 million false front. (It was officially declared sculpture to circumvent Park District height limitations on structures in the park.) It looks like a Frank Gehry, but that sense of the familiar also carries an aspect of the generic - it could be anywhere.

To get a feel for what makes Millennium Park an artistic as well as civic triumph, you have to look beyond the proscenium. Behind and in front of the pavilion Gehry makes some dazzling connections with Chicago architecture's traditional celebration of structure. He deliberately left the bracing on the back of the proscenium exposed-a dramatic exposition on how the thing's held up. "Some people have objected to the back side," says Gehry partner Craig Webb, "but we always imagined it to be a structure with a face and a back side, and the pipe and structure that support the proscenium related in a way back to the trellis."

That trellis, created to hold the pavilion's lawn speakers, is the lightest of structures-"almost nothing," in the words Mies van der Rohe used to describe his ideal in architecture. It creates the sense of a room that unites listeners spatially just as the sound
distributed through the speakers unites them aurally-all the way to the back of the lawn, nearly 600 feet from the stage. And the trellis both counterpoints and frames the wall of historic skyscrapers lining Michigan Avenue on the park's periphery, breaking the view into a mosaic that makes it easier to appreciate the individual buildings. "I didn't expect that," said Gehry at the symposium. "That was a little bonus."

Millennium Park both engages traditional urban ideas and inverts them in ways that are startlingly original. Just as Gehry's work blurs the line between architecture and sculpture, Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain address sculpture in a very architectural way - they're not small accents in a large garden but environments that engage viewers much as spaces in a building do. It's this blurring and blending of the boundaries of art, architecture and landscape that make Millennium Park something special and exciting. This isn't your father's idyllic urban playground-it's as unsettled and enigmatic as the city itself.

That we got it at all in our current economic environment is no small miracle. In a culture where the market and private interest have been elevated to the status of religion, the public realm has been subject to constant assault and erosion. That Millennium Park represents a robust revival of private philanthropy in support of the civic commons is perhaps its greatest triumph, but perhaps even more astonishing is how Mayor Richard Daley allowed himself to be persuaded to transform the park from its original Beaux Arts design to one that boldly engages modern artistic and architectural thought at the highest levels.

Most often, bold visions are what you find stuffed in the back of a desk drawer. They only escape that fate when that rare personality comes forward who combines obsessive vision with a strong power base, someone who's immune to leveling compromise and disinclined to take "no" for an answer. Even then, things often teeter between triumph and catastrophe. If you're lucky, you get the Robert Moses who built Jones Beach; if you're not, you get an older, power-crazed Moses
hell-bent on tearing up Greenwich Village for a cross-Manhattan expressway. In the case of Mayor Daley, the same overwhelming power and stubborn will that largely enabled the early disasters of Millennium Park also can be credited with the project's recovery and ultimate triumph.

Although the success of a visionary project often hangs on a single individual, at Millennium Park, we had a gang of four - Mayor Daley, of course, but also Cindy Pritzker, instrumental in bringing Frank Gehry to Chicago whose name is invoked with a hushed reverence usually reserved for Godot, and Ed Uhlir, the soft-spoken but doggedly determined Park District Project Manager who came on board back in September of 1998 to build a parking garage with a bit of greenery and held on for dear life as the project became a six year marathon of increasingly ambitious construction.

However, it's the fourth player, John Bryan, former Sara Lee Corporation Chairman, who may have been most intriguing. He was the bagman in raising the $205,000,000 in private contributions that funded the proscenium, the trellis and bridge, the sculptures, the Lurie Garden, the Harris Theatre - essentially all the above-grade elements that have made the park such a critical and public success - former Sara Lee Corporation Chairman John Bryan.

John Bryan has been instrumental in key Chicago architectural triumphs not once, but twice in the past year. Last September, when Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, was put up for auction at Sotheby's, it was Bryan who was not only instrumental in the fund?raising drive to purchase one of the central landmarks of modern architecture and keep it open to the public - his personal last?minute big?bucks infusion helped seal the winning bid. By then he'd already helped persuade over 80 individuals kick in at least $1,000,000 each for Millennium Park. As each new element popped up, he went back to the well and raised the additional funds. Bryan seems almost a throwback to more idealistic times. Let's hope he's not an anachronism, but a harbinger of a reawakening of civic values in the private sector.
The remarkable thing is that the money Bryan raised went to a truly public amenity. This is not Soldier Field, a $655,000,000 citadel, isolated from the rest of the city, primarily benefiting an elite group of season ticket holders. Millennium Park is in the heart of the Chicago. It's easily accessible, it's open to all, and - for the most part - it's free. Nearly 500,000 people, according to Ed Uhlir, checked out the park opening week.

But what effect will the park's success have outside its borders?

All of Michigan Avenue from Randolph down to 11th is a landmark district. Other than the 1958 Borg-Warner building, all the structures are from the 1920's and before. As North Michigan began to boom in 1960's, south of river Michigan Avenue languished and grew dowdy. The adjacent decaying strip of Grant Park next to the open railroad trench was largely abandoned to vagrants. Now, with Millennium Park, the joint is jumping. Michigan south of the river is the new hot district, lacking only a cool new name - MiSoRi anyone? An area that had been drained of all energy is now the kind of pinball machine of public interaction that powers a city's creative regeneration. Just as important from an architectural standpoint, the wall of historic buildings along Michigan has been rescued from its status as a mothball-musty museum piece by now being able to play off the rich lode of modernism just across the street.

Beyond the immediate neighborhood, the picture becomes cloudier. The city is coming off a three-month high that saw June's American Institute of Architects convention - the first in Chicago in over a decade - throw light on a bumper crop of talented young Chicago architects and a parcel of new high-profile buildings that are as good as anything ever built here, but we need to stop patting ourselves on the back for just a moment and face up to a little hard reality. If the view through the Gehry trellis towards Michigan avenue was not towards the current wall of old historic skyscrapers but to a typical cross-section of the kind of big-ticket buildings currently being erected in the city center, the resulting emotion would not be elation, but shame.

The architects and critics extolling Chicago's architectural renaissance can do so only because they've willingly blindfolded themselves to the dry rot of bad architecture that's overwhelming Chicago's city center. Walk the streets of River North, the West Loop or Museum Campus, or check the big full-color ads in the Sunday real estate section, and you'll find that for every new interesting building, there at least thirty often larger concrete towers all but completely devoid of architectural merit. Great buildings are always the exception, but Chicago has historically been revered around the world as an architectural showcase because good design ran deep Look at the wall of buildings along Michigan Avenue. A good argument could be made that Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium building is the only truly world-class landmark, but there isn't a real stinker anywhere along the district's nearly one-mile length.

In the 1880's and 1890's, most prominent Chicago structures, many of a simple loft type, were built with a sharp eye on controlling cost, yet the quality of design was still so high as to create what became the globally influential Chicago School of architecture. The same impulse for economy fueled the spread of steel and glass construction in the 1950's and 60's, yet the result was a second Chicago school that redefined modern architecture in America. Architecture has always been driven by the market, but in recent decades, there's been a disconnect. Architectural quality has come to be seen as not just economically inefficient, but unnecessary.

Conspicuous by their absence from Millennium Park's $1,000,000+ donors are present-day developers like James Loewenberg, whose specialty is expanding the residential population of Chicago's downtown while single-handedly lowering the city's architectural I.Q with each new building. Loewenberg has become successful because he understands the Wal-Mart world we live in today, where the primary impulse of the market economy is to consume as much as possible as efficiently as possible. Traditional shopping centers languish while we rush through bare?bones warehouse stores, isolated in a sea of asphalt parking lots, loading up our shopping carts with everything from toilet paper in skid quantities to big screen plasma TV's. Loewenberg is a master in knowing how to transfer this dynamic to real estate - pick a good location, lay out the floor plans and provide the appliances and amenities people want, and you don't have to worry how ugly the exterior is. He's been very forthright in contending his buyers aren't interested in paying extra money to have their building look good - after all, once they're actually inside, they don't really have to look at it.

While there are exceptions - Bill Smith with his Erie on the Park, and Colin Kihnke with Contemporaine -its clear Loewenberg has set the standard most developers now descend to. Today's model of the market economy no longer supports quality architecture, and it's hard to figure out how to fix it. Millennium Park is unlikely to transform James Loewenberg or any of his colleagues into a Herbert Greenwald, the visionary 1950's developer who gave Mies van der Rohe his first chance to build path?breaking landmarks like the 860-880 North Michigan apartments.

Ironically, Millennium Park's best shot at improving the quality of Chicago architecture may be through its great patron, Mayor Richard M. Daley. The mayor's first impulse may still be making Chicago more like the Beaux Arts Paris for which he's built up a strong affinity over multiple visits, but his long, hands-on involvement making Millennium Park a reality, topped by the rewarding groundswell of popular acclaim, may have opened his eyes to the value of reasserting Chicago's place in defining the architecture of our time.

Last year, Daley gave the Sun-Times a front-page headline quote, "No more bad buildings!" but to make that command a reality, the mayor has to realize that, until a way is found to encourage the market beyond its current bottom?feeding fixation on the cheap and generic, jawboning by his administration may be the only thing standing in the way of the continuing degradation of the city's architecture. Jawboning has fallen in disuse both as a word and a concept -it was what President Kennedy did when he talked the big steel companies out of unjustified and inflationary price increases in the 1960's. It was a key part of what Mayor Daley's father did when he reinvigorated the Loop, not only by hiring modernist master Jacques Brownson as the architect for what is now the Daley Center, but by helping Mies van der Rohe get the job of designing the new Federal Center at Jackson at Dearborn, setting the stage for a string of landmark buildings such as Myron Goldsmith's Brunswick Building, and Perkins and Will's First National Bank.

Up to now, the city, happy just to get all those new buildings on the tax rolls, has appeared to be willing to look the other way if the design of the resulting towers happen to pollute the skyline or if their podium parking garages transform streets into dead canyons. If great Chicago architecture is return to being something other than an occasional surprise, there has to be change. Other than a few exceptions such as David Steele's elegant new bike pavilion at Millennium Park, the talented young architects everyone's talking about haven't been allowed anywhere near any major new project downtown. Maybe the mayor will be able to persuade someone give them a chance. New podium buildings are being proposed for Streeterville area. Will the city allow them to be the usual poisonous dreck, or will it start to work closely with developers to raise the lowest-common-denominator look of most new big?ticket projects and begin to restore Chicago's historic commitment to an architecture that matters? If the success of the architecture, civic planning and design of Millennium Park doesn't persuade developers we can do a lot better, then Millennium Park becomes little more than the architectural equivalent of a wild game preserve, a place where wonderful things are kept and protected because they can no longer survive in the real world.



Millennium Park
its architecture and art


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Text and photographs © Copyright 2004 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.