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The three disciplines of art, architecture and landscape design merge in this grand civic project that has transformed a former rail yard into an urban showpiece

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Semi-industrial wastelands are a natural by-product of big cities, often occupying prime real estate in central areas. Not surprisingly, it takes considerable vision – from local authorities as well as design experts – to transform such areas into dynamic parklands.

The development of Millennium Park in Chicago is a good example. Project director Ed Uhlir says the formerly semi-derelict lakefront site had enormous potential.

"This area was effectively Chicago's front yard, yet it consisted of an ugly rail yard and an ugly parking lot."

Transforming the site was a natural progression for the constantly evolving city, says Uhlir.

"During Mayor Richard M Daley's tenure, there has been a gradual greening of the city," he says. "Chicago has been repositioned as a beautiful and vibrant city where culture is a strong draw card."

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The city's objective here was to create an urban showpiece that would be one of the finest recreational and cultural spaces of any city in the world, so renowned architects, artists and landscape designers were commissioned to design different elements within the park.

The centrepiece is a Frank Gehry-designed amphitheatre incorporating the Jay Pritzker Pavilion – the new home of the Grant Park Music Festival.

The highly sculptural pavilion is clad in stainless steel panels and features a billowing headdress of stainless steel ribbons that frame the proscenium openingand the stage. An overhead trellis of crisscrossed steel pipes adjoins the proscenium and spans two seating sections – a main area of 4000 fixed seats and the Great Lawn, which holds 7000 people in a more informal environment. Shaped as a flattened dome, the trellis is constructed of curved steel pipes spaced 20m apart and supported by cylindrical concrete pylons clad in stainless steel.

Architect Frank Gehry says the design suggests musical qualities – the projecting forms of the stainless steel orchestra shell are reminiscent of brass horns. They also help project sound towards the lawn.

The trellis-like structure that emanates from the shell and arcs over the Great Lawn has a form suggestive of sound waves washing over the audience. The architect says the design was prompted by the client's desire to avoid the typical forest of speaker towers, which could have obstructed the audience's view. Mounting a sound system on the trellis allows the music to float above the audience.

Frank Gehry also designed the serpentine footbridge that provides a pedestrian link between the park and the Daley Bicentennial Plaza and Chicago's lakefront park area. The bridge gives pedestrians the opportunity to rise above street level and the tree canopy to experience a different view of the pavilion. Its curved sides, created from panels of brushed stainless steel, widen to form a berm that helps reduce road noise.

English artist Anish Kapoor designed another focal point in the park – the 110-tonne Cloud Gate sculpture, forged from highly polished stainless steel plates. The sculpture, which was inspired by liquid mercury, has a mirror-like surface that provides dramatic reflections of the Chicago skyline and Millennium Park. Internal trusses allow the sculpture to change shape, providing extra stability in response to extreme weather conditions.

The Crown Fountain, designed by Kreuck Sexton Architects and Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, anchors the southwest corner of the park. The surface area of the fountain floor is covered with matt black granite, which creates a vast, dark and empty surface. A 3mm-deep water skin is spread out across the whole of the pool.

"The pool invites visitors to step on its surface and look at the images of the sky and city reflected back," says Uhlir.

Two 15m glass towers, made from glass bricks are another dramatic feature of the fountain. Thousands of LED screens, visually magnified behind the glass bricks, project images from both nature and a broad spectrum of Chicago citizens.

Uhlir says the artist referenced the traditional use of gargoyles in fountains, where faces of mythological beings were sculpted with open mouths to allow water, a symbol of life, to flow out. Here, water appears to flow from the mouths of Chicago citizens.

"The collection of faces, which came from a cross-section of 1000 residents, provides Pensa's tribute to the people of this city," says Uhlir. "The collection of images will be expanded during regular intervals over the years, so that it can be used as a tool for understanding the social evolution of the city."

Uhlir says the sequence of the display is gentle and slow, and has a rhythm that complements the coloured lights and nature images.

The Lurie Garden, designed by Kathryn Gustafson, provides another reference to the city's origin. It was created to pay homage to the city of Chicago's motto: Urbs in Horto, which means City in a Garden. Incorporating perennial gardens, hedges and robustly textured plants, the garden reflects the city's transformation from a flat and marshy landscape to a bold and powerful city.

First published date: 17 December 2004

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Credit List

Location Millennium Park, Chicago
Architect Kreuck Sexton Architects
Bridge Frank Gehry, Craig Webb and Manoucher Eslami from Gehry Partners
Project management Jay Pritzker
Pavilion URS Corporation; BP Bridge, Cloud Gate and Crown
Fountain US Equities Development; Lurie
Garden Spectrum Strategies, Inc
Structural engineer Skidmore Owings & Merrill
Mechanical and electrical engineer McDonough Assocations
Theatre consultant and lighting designer Schuler & Shook
Acoustical consultant and audio systems design The Talaske Group
Contractor Walsh Construction
Gate artist Anish Kapoor
Engineer Halvorsen Kay SE
Fabricator Performance Structures Crown
Fountain artist Juame Plensa
Lurie garden landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol
Concept Robert Israel
Horticultural designer Piet Oudolf