Millennium Park Chicago – A Community Space for 21st Century

01 Chicago
01 Chicago

The iconic skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue, Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

Sitting by the banks of Lake Michigan, in the North East of the United States of America, Chicago is a city unafraid of making bold choices, particularly in architecture. Art Deco features nestle comfortably alongside Gothic details, and streamlined modernist structures stands side by side with the very latest building developments, still covered in scaffolding, with bulldozers and cranes accessorising the half-built edifices.

This article is the first of an occasional series focusing on the appeals of Chicago, that great ode to modernity. The architecture of the city will feature heavily, but other attractions will also appear including sculptures, galleries and parks. Millennium Park, having been created at the turn of the 21st century is one of the newcomers of the city, has quickly become the beating heart of Chicago, and is the first to be in the spotlight.

02 Chicago

Modern skyscrapers overlooking the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

Millennium Park, located in the ‘Loop’, the central business district of the city, was officially opened in July 2004, somewhat late to celebrate the new millennium. Planning for the park had begun in 1997, with construction starting in October 1998. It took another five years for the project to reach fruition, but despite negative publicity due to lengthy delays and drastically increased costs, once opened Millennium Park quickly became a firm favourite with locals and tourists alike.

The park covers a 24.5-acre section of the larger Grant Park, and as it sits directly above a carparking station and the Millennium train station, is considered the world’s largest rooftop garden. The park includes several popular features, including Cloud Gate and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, amongst others, and is also a great place to marvel at the wonderful surrounding architecture.

03 Wrigley Square

The neoclassical Millennium Monument in Wrigley Square, Millennium Park, Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

Heading into the Millennium Park from the North West of the city, visitors initially arrive at Wrigley Square. Named in honour of the owner of the famous chewing gum company, William Wrigley Jr is one of Chicago’s most well-known figures. His company was founded in 1891 originally selling soap, and then baking powder.

The gum did not appear until a little later, when Wrigley Jr attached two packs of gum to each can of baking powder as a buying incentive. The gum quickly became more popular than the baking powder, and he turned his attention to growing the chewing gum business.

04 Wrigley Building

The home of Wrigley’s chewing gum – the Wrigley Building on the Chicago River. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

The company continues to this day, with descendants of Wrigley Jr heading the organisation up until the early 2000s. A variety of Wrigley reminders are scattered throughout the city, from the Wrigley Building in the centre of town on the banks of the Chicago River to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

Within Wrigley Square is the Millennium Monument, a striking classical peristyle, a nearly full-sized replica of a monument built in 1917 in the same location in the park, but that was unable to withstand the harsh Chicago winters. The square is a lovely introduction to the park, and is a popular location for weddings.

05 Cloud Gate 1

Anish Kapoor’s breathtaking Cloud Gate, set amidst a collection of Chicago skyscrapers. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

A little further into the park, the genius of Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor is on display in Cloud Gate. Affectionately known as ‘The Bean’, due to its lovely, curvy shape, it was chosen in a design competition attracting over 30 entries, and was completed in 2006.

The sculpture is inspired by liquid mercury, and it artistically distorts the architecture of the city in its reflective surface. This shining beacon draws the public in droves – it is a meeting place for locals, who mingle with the crowds of tourists lining up for the prime spots to take a selfie, and marriage proposals are a regular feature, each of which is accompanied by joyous applause and yelping from the crowd.

06 Cloud Gate 2

A distorted Chicago skyline in Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, affectionately known as The Bean. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

‘The Bean’ is a must-see for every visitor to the city. There is something indefinable about the sculpture, and the atmosphere it inspires. It is quite surprising. Descriptions and photographs do not do the artwork justice, and being physically present in the space is required to feel the energy it generates.

07 Michigan Avenue

The skyscrapers of Michigan Avenue, including the gothic University Club of Chicago (far left), and the Athletic Association of Chicago (centre). Photograph by Belinda McDowall

The location of ‘The Bean’ only adds to its electricity. Standing looking west at the jaw-dropping architecture along Michigan Avenue is truly spectacular. University Club of Chicago, designed by Martin Roche, was reputed to be the first ‘Gothic skyscraper’, and completed in 1909. It stands on Michigan Avenue opposite the South West corner of the park.

08 UC Chicago

The intricate Gothic architecture of the University Club of Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

Another Gothic wonder, in the Venetian style, is a few doors up – the Athletic Association of Chicago. Currently a hotel, it was completed in 1893, designed by Henry Ives Cobb. They compete for attention with a variety of other edifices, in both modern and period styles, including the Chicago Cultural Center, which is a neoclassical structure with Italian Renaissance elements.

Back in the park, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is a truly modern, truly modern architectural triumph.

The pavilion is named in honour of another exemplary citizen of Chicago, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who family owned Hyatt Hotels.

10 Pritzker Pavilion 1

The bandshell of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

The pavilion was designed by the incomparable Frank Gehry, architect of the renowned Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Dancing House in Prague. It is a truly astounding piece of design, described by a New York times writer as ‘a celestial gateway to another universe’.

Space age architectural design in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

Space age architectural design in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

Gehry has used stainless steel, a favourite of his, in the design of the stage, with a criss-cross of interlinking steel pipes as a bandshell, to support the sound system, which comes together to create acoustics of unparalleled quality. Completed in 2004, the pavilion hosts a wide range of music series and performing arts events, and is the home of the Grant Park Music Festival, one of the only remaining free classical music series in the United States.

11 Cloud Gate 3

The towers of Michigan Avenue and the reflective Cloud Gate in Millennium Park, Chicago. Photograph by Belinda McDowall

This small square of Chicago contains some of the biggest attractions of the city, and is just one example of the perfect combination of old and new sitting elegantly together that Chicago has perfected. The Gothic skyscrapers overlooking the neoclassical peristyle and the ultra-modern pavilion, not to mention the wonderful ‘Bean’, is a brilliant combination of respecting the past whilst looking to the future, and being unafraid of change, and of the new.

Belinda McDowall, Deputy Editor and Special Features, The Culture Concept Circle, March 2017

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