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The Millennium Park Effect

It’s official. Project for Public Spaces President Fred Kent has lost touch with the modern world. Admittedly not usually a booster of contemporary design, Mr. Kent has taken his knee-jerk dismissal of contemporary art and architecture to new lows in the organization’s August Making Places newsletter.

In an article entitled “Five of the World’s Most Overrated Places”, Mr. Kent calls Chicago’s acclaimed, year-old Millennium Park a “spectacle to behold, but not the variety of experience necessary for a truly great public space”.

He continues:

“Already, the buzz for these overrated buildngs is fading, and many arbiters of urban trends predict that the Bilbao Effect will soon peter out… to be succeeded, they say, by the ‘Millennium Park Effect’…Like a Hollywood blockbuster, the park is okay as quick entertainment but doesn’t provide a rich experience. Its attractions, including the enormous Cloud Gate sculpture and Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, seem to have been plopped down with little regard to the space in between.”

Un-huh. Been here lately, Mr. Kent?

Kent’s assertion that Chicago’s Millennium Park does not provide a rich experience proves he must not spend much time in this city or in my park. Millennium Park is my neighborhood park. I live and work in downtown Chicago, both within walking distance of the park. Since Millennium Park opened in mid-2004, there has not been an hour of the day or evening, summer or winter, that the park has been empty. Indeed, the park is usually thronged with visitors, late into the evening and long into the cold weather.

Beyond the range of concerts and exhibits that are regularly scheduled in the park year-round, it does not appear that the thousands of daily users of the park want for enjoyment. The Plensa fountain has been an incredible hit with children and brave parents—and not a few business people–who kick off their shoes and run through the shallow pool of water in droves.

The “Bean” (apologies to Mr. Kapoor) remains a reflective wonder for thousands even though it is partially under wraps for the completion of cosmetic polishing—and people loved it when it opened early still with all of its seams showing. The Great Lawn under the bandshell’s trellis hosts numerous daily blankets underneath picnickers, readers, families, singles, workers of all backgrounds. The Lurie Garden is a well-used bucolic respite from the bustle of the city just a few steps away. It is used by strollers, couples, birders, children dangling their feet in the garden’s stream.

Granted, the park opened in 2004 with a rather barren interior plaza, but that plaza was rebuilt before summer 2005 and the renovation has only improved circulation within the garden and access among the park’s attractions. Mr. Kent’s comment that Millennium Park seems to have been designed with “little regard for the space in between” its attractions is ludicrous. I doubt Mr. Kent has truly been in the park in a meaningful way. Used it for an hour or two the way the average visitor does. Strolled through it. Lolled in it.

In fact, the park’s spaces move easily from one area and attraction to another. Great care was taken to ensure that correct arrangement of pedestrian pathways, sightlines, and borrowed views. Moreover, the park was honored by the American Paralyzed Veteran’s Association earlier this year for the fact that accessibility issues were taken into account at the conceptual stage of the garden, before a design pen ever hit paper.

Most telling of all, and most ignored in Mr. Kent’s uninformed appraisal of the park, is the proportion of Chicago residents who use Millennium Park. It is high. Media stories and community organizations regularly observe that, since the very day it opened, Millennium Park has consistently drawn throngs of local residents from every socioeconomic background in this city to enjoy its wonders. We didn’t stop visiting the park after one or two visits, either. I and many local residents that I know go out of our way to have reason to be in the park, be it for a concert, a stroll, a drink, or, yes, a run in the fountain.

While I realize everyone is entitled to their opinion about Millennium Park, just because Kent has a distaste for the inclusion of high-concept designs in the creation of public spaces does not give him license to baldly misrepresent the space. Certainly, a year or five from now perhaps his biased opinion about the park might be borne out (and that would be a trite way for him to defend his argument in advance). But for now, we Chicagoans love our park and use it more than anyone ever thought. This high-concept park is very much a populist park. (Note to Kent- You’d know that if you ever actually used the park.)

Armchair critics frequently succumb to the fatal flaw of never getting out of their chairs. Next time, Kent, talk to a local.

Categories: Architecture Planning

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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