City must do things ‘great,’ not well

Calgary com­pared to am­bi­tious Chicago

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - New Condos -

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.

For many more pho­tos, and col­umns, visit our web­site un­der the head­ing: ‘More News and Views.’

Bold vi­sion

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.

Beau­ti­ful dream

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.

Shaw Mil­len­nium

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.

Last word

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.

Pho­tos, Richard White/for the Calgary Her­ald

Chil­dren en­joy the un­usual Crown Foun­tain in Mil­len­nium Park in Chicago.

Richard White/for the Calgary Her­ald

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.

Richard White/for the Calgary Her­ald

Calgary Her­ald/files

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