RESEARCH QUESTION: On Friday, Chicago adds a new park to its front yard, on 241/2 acres stretched between downtown and Lake Michigan. Now that Millennium Park -- a cross between a sculpture garden and a performing arts complex with some open space and athletic facilities thrown in -- is complete, we wondered: Is it worth adding the park to already-jam-packed itineraries?
METHODOLOGY: We recently toured the park with project director Edward K. Uhlir as workers frantically soldered, wired, planted, dry-walled, floored and topped off its numerous buildings and artworks. We also attended performances and exhibitions at the few park facilities already open.
RESULTS: Obviously "millennium" is a misnomer, unless the term is used to mean "took centuries to complete." (The park was originally scheduled to open in 2000.) As it turns out, "park" is something of a misnomer as well. The place owes more to the Chicago tradition of hosting world's fairs than to any time-honored notion of the park as a place for sedate recreation. If you want "Sunday in the Park With George," you'll have to cross the street to the Art Institute of Chicago and visit it there.
"The park is a place to come to see great architecture and art," says Uhlir, acknowledging that some of it appears in unlikely places, like the pair of elevator structures bearing the design signature of famed architect Renzo Piano.
In a city as famously self-regarding as Chicago (Windy City refers not to the weather but to the local penchant for bragging), it's fitting that much of the park's art gives patrons an opportunity to admire themselves. "Cloud Gate," a stainless-steel sculpture by Anish Kapoor that's shaped like a kidney and is already known as "The Bean," reflects the rest of the park and nearby Beaux-Arts buildings -- as well as everyone who walks up to it. And Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain -- a pair of glass block towers -- features a display of the faces of 1,000 Chicagoans, an ever-changing array of contemporary gargoyles complete with water jets spouting from videotaped mouths.
South of "The Bean" sits the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Frank Gehry's stainless-steel home for free outdoor concerts. The 4,000-seat venue, with its hulking shell, bristling cantilevers and airy trellis, looks variously like a plane crash, the tousled hair of an inspired conductor and an immense slingshot -- but nothing can be said against its acoustics or sightlines. The Great Lawn behind the seats is slightly elevated for the benefit of groundlings. Gehry also designed the spectacular foot bridge that snakes from the pavilion east toward Lake Michigan like the tail of a dragon armored in beaten pewter.
The Harris Theater for Music and Dance, open since midwinter, is home to a dozen local performance troupes, including the internationally renowned Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Though the facility itself is a bit off-putting -- a featureless oblong box whose orchestra seats are three stories below street level -- the performance space is magnificent, with flawless acoustics and no bad seats.
Millennium Park does include actual parkland, green space wrested from abandoned railroad yards. The Lurie Garden, designed by landscape architects Kathryn Gustafson, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel, is enclosed on two sides by thick hedges to foster contemplation. Urban athletes can rent bikes or securely store their own at a center equipped with lockers and showers. An ice rink in "The Bean's" shadow now appears in its summer incarnation as the outdoor seating area of the Park Grill, whose decor suggests the cafes in Copenhagen's Tivoli -- which makes sense, because Tivoli is a garden just like Millennium is a park.
The neighboring Park Cafe offers sandwiches and chips, and there are a range of eateries across Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street at the park's periphery.
CONCLUSION: If you envision a park as nature protected from human intervention, Millennium Park will be something of a shock. But for lovers of the performing arts, the park's theater and pavilion should be a destination like the Santa Fe Opera -- only open year-round and with ultra-modern art and architecture to stare at in lieu of mountains. Families will find kids' activities, but if time is short and they have to choose, Navy Pier's Ferris wheel, children's museum and street performers are more likely to appeal.
-- Kelly Kleiman
Admission to the park and pavilion is free; there's a fee for Harris Theater events. Subway/El stops: Washington/State on the Red Line; Randolph/State on the Brown, Green and Orange lines; Washington/ Dearborn on the Blue Line. Any Michigan Avenue bus will drop you at the park entrance. Details: www.chicago.il.org.