City must do things ‘great,’ not well
Calgary compared to ambitious Chicago
Those words of the late singer Frank Sinatra — “Chicago is my kind of town” — now make sense to me.
The city on Lake Michigan thinks in terms of the big, bold and beautiful — a lesson Calgary is now just learning thanks to The Bow office tower and the Peace Bridge.
The best illustration of how Chicago has created a culture of thinking big is its Millennium Park.
For the past nine years (the park didn’t actually open until July 2004), I have been hearing from everyone from members of the public to professionals how great the park is.
At first, I wondered if it was a case of “lust of the new” and that with time, people’s response to the new public space would wane. But if my experience this past May is any indication, the park is as popular today as it was when it first opened, a true testament to its success.
C MBig success
At 25 hectares, Millennium Park is actually part of the larger, 128-hectare Grant Park, which is often called the “front lawn” of downtown Chicago because of its expansive open spaces for the public to gather.
Millennium Park is best known for its three big features: architect Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, which seats more than 11,000 people; sculptor Anish Kapoor’s artwork, Cloud Gate, in the AT&T Plaza; and sculptor Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain (yes, the same Plensa who designed Wonderland, which is part of the plaza of The Bow tower).
However, the park is much more than just a showcase of works by a who’s who of architects and artists. It also includes two bridges — one that connects to the Art Institute of Chicago and one linking to another portion of the park.
Another key feature is the Lurie Garden, a two-hectare garden built overtop the parking garage and railway yards, making it one of the world’s biggest green roofs.
There’s also McDonald’s Cycle Centre, a temperature-controlled space for 300 bikes with showers, lockers, bike repair and rental services. Along the northern edge of Millennium Park sits the 1,525seat Harris Theatre, which is a haven for music and dance.
One of the more creative elements of the Park are the McCormick Tribune Plaza, Ice Rink and Park Grill. An outdoor ice rink from mid-November to mid-March is converted into an outdoor patio during the summer.
The facility attracts more than 100,000 visitors to the park in the winter. Genius!
I bet you are asking yourself how much this all cost. It was a whopping $475 million US, more than three times the original budget of $150 million.
To put this into perspective, we are talking about 19 Calatrava Peace Bridges.
Lesson learned: In the 21st century, if a city wants to do something big, it has to spend big. It also has to ask individuals and corporations to match their contributions. Show me the money.
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While the original Millennium Park project was much more modest, Chicago philanthropists got behind the proposal and decided it was an opportunity for the city to be bold — to do something to put the city on the map, much like the Chicago’s World’s Fair did back in 1893.
As a result, each of the elements of the park has a family or corporate name attached to it. It was the Pritzker family that convinced Frank Gehry to get involved, while the Crown family donated to the Crown Fountain, the Lurie family to the gardens and the Harris family to the theatre.
In the end, philanthropists and corporations contributed about half of the costs of the park, with 91 donors contributing $1 million or more.
Lesson learned: If a city wants to do something bold, it needs the leadership and support of its wealthy corporations and individuals.
Unquestionably, the park is a beautiful space that appeals to people of all ages and backgrounds.
There is beauty in the 168 stainlesssteel plates that make up Cloud Gate, which have been polished to become so seamless that they form a single mirror.
There is beauty in seeing and hearing people from around the world enjoying the artworks all day. The atmosphere is like a carnival, where the people are the entertainment as they play with their reflections and those of the buildings.
There must be a million pictures taken here everyday.
There is also beauty in the children playing in the water and getting sprayed by the splitting faces at the Crown Fountain during the day — with the glowing video towers at night creating an eerie sense of place. Even at 10 p.m. at night, there are families playing in the fountain.
The McCormick ice rink is a beautiful outdoor living room in the summer that offers comfy and cushy wicker furniture and colourful umbrellas.
The Pritzker Pavilion has the capacity to host 11,000 people for concerts, which it does often from June to September. While it might not have the natural beauty of the outdoor concert space at Calgary’s Prince’s Island, it speaks to Chicago’s sense of urbanity and urban design.
The Lurie Garden is a quiet oasis separated by a dense planting of cedar trees that creates a living sound barrier from the thousands of noisy people surrounding the Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain.
Inside the gardens are pathways and a wonderful, long and narrow water pool that invites people to sit and dangle their feet, which dozens of people were doing when I visited.
Lesson learned: The beauty of public spaces is that they have both loud and quiet areas, with plenty of places for people to sit, look, listen and linger.
Park in Calgary
While they share a similar name, Calgary’s Shaw Millennium Park pales in comparison to that of Chicago.
The Alberta city's skate park was a bold statement 10 years ago — it still claims to be North America’s largest outdoor 24-hour skate park — but it attracts only a few hundred people per day at best.
As a concert space, the park is used for a few events each year, such as the Calgary Blues Festival. But outside the skateboarder world, it certainly isn’t on anyone’s must-see list.
The lasers on the concrete viewing area have to my knowledge never been used and the millennium clock is hard to read and has no stature.
According to the city’s website, the park attracts about 35,000 visitors each year, a far cry from the four million in Chicago (if we account for the difference in the size of the two cities, Shaw Millennium Park should be attracting close to one million visitors per year).
It would be wonderful if somehow the nearby Mewata Armory could become much more of a public space for events — maybe a farmers’ market.
The proposal to convert the nearby building that once housed the Science Centre into a public art gallery would also help increase the profile of the park, just as the Art Institute of Chicago adds to the attractiveness of that city's Millennium Park.
Calgary is guilty of trying to do too many things well and not enough things great.
The Wonderland sculpture is a good example. While it is nice to look at, it really doesn’t engage the public — there is nothing to do and no reason to linger.
If we had gotten a piece like the Crown Fountain, where people of all ages could come and spend the afternoon with restaurants and cafes at street level, people would be able to sit, sip and savour, making it a much more successful urban public space.
When I first heard Calgary was going to get a Plensa artwork, I was told it was to have a wishing-well theme. I wonder what happened to that idea?
Imagine if there had been some sort of water feature with a “call to action” for the viewer. After visiting Chicago, I think we got the short end of the straw.
P.S.: On my last visit to Wonderland, I did see a young businessman in a suit spontaneously decide to climb to the top of the head in his dress shoes.
Maybe we should turn the sculpture into a centrepiece for an urban playground, inviting people to climb and swing from it like monkeys in the urban jungle. We need to add some fun to the downtown and stop being so corporate.
P.P.S.: I bet not many people at Chicago’s Millennium Park realize that just a few blocks away, there are major public sculptures by Picasso, Calder and Miro — three of most important artists of the 20th century.
When I checked them out, two of the three had nobody there when I visited them; the Picasso had a few children sliding down the base.
Lesson learned: Public placemaking is more than just hiring famous artists to create an artwork and plunking them down on an office plaza. We can do better. We should demand better.
We need to create spaces that are more than just big, bold and beautiful. They must be engaging, or they will be largely
ignored within a few years.
Children enjoy the unusual Crown Fountain in Millennium Park in Chicago.
Above, people dip their feet in a pool in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Left and above left, the Cloud Gate.
The Crown Fountain at night.
The BP Pedestrian Bridge connects Millennium Park to Daley Bicentennial Plaza in Chicago. It was designed by award-winning architect Frank Gehry.