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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Park of the Century, But Which One?

The official website of Chicago’s newest public park doesn’t worry about hyperbole. “Millennium Park,” it boasts, “has evolved into the most significant millennium project in the world.” The park has been built around major works by Frank Gehry, Anish Kapoor, and Juame Plensa. On its surface, then, the claim doesn’t sound too far-fetched.

The problem with Millennium Park, though, is that the whole never makes an impression that equals the sum of its parts due to its anachronistic site plan.

Maybe I caught the park at a bad time. April is the cruelest month for landscape architecture, after all. But Millennium Park was not shining last week.

Kapoor’s 35-foot-high stainless steel sculpture, Cloud Gate, is currently covered with an enclosed tent and will remain that way for at least another month. The piece needs additional welding and polishing, one of the dozen or so rent-a-cops walking the grounds told me. (Why are there so many private security people guarding the park, I wondered. If the park needs that much security presence, maybe it’s not the place to stroll on a nice evening.)

Half of Juame Plensa’s glass brick and video Crown Fountain was also roped off for repairs. The video was running, but the water was turned off. Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion was intact. But I was surprised, when I approached the park from its north side on Randolph Street, to see that no attempt had been made to finish the backside of Gehry’s signature swooping stainless steel panels. From the north, the structure gives the impression of the rear side of a Hollywood sound stage—all façade propped up with naked metal supports.

But what disappointed me most about the park was the built and landscaped environment that ties these pieces together. The park has been constructed around pieces by Gehry, Kapoor, and Plensa—three artists whose work is as contemporary, as of the moment, as possible. The rest of the park, though, has been lifted straight from Fredrick Law Olmstead’s playbook: long, straight promenades, heavy stone balustrades guarding the grand staircases and walkways, and clichéd plantings.

Being whipsawed back and forth between the past and the present as I wandered the walkways, I couldn’t quite place why I wasn’t as impressed with the park as I had expected to be. Then I made the realization. These three signature works of early twenty-first century art and design have been linked together with a site plan that’s wholly derivative of a nineteenth-century style. The juxtaposition doesn’t benefit either the park or the works.

Gehry, Kapoor, and Plensa deserved better. Chicago deserved better. Millennium Park just might be one of the best millennium projects in the world. (Given the London Eye and Millennium Dome as competition, though, that’s not saying much.) But it’s not one of the best parks of the century. Not this century, or the last, or even the one before.

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