Dawoud Bey on Crown Fountain and New Burnham Pavilions

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Crown Fountain, Jaume Plensa, Millennium Park

It is finally really feeling like summertime here in Chicago. As I so often do when the weather gets warm I took a stroll over to the Crown Fountain while I was downtown on other business. I figured that today would be the kind of day that the fountain was made for: temperature in the high eighties, plenty of tourists afoot and scores of kids and families looking to escape the heat. I wasn’t disappointed and after seeing the teeming crowd enjoying themselves freely in and around the cascading water and images of the two towers, left feeling more uplifted and optimistic than before my encounter.

Since its opening in 2004 the Crown Fountain has proven to be an extraordinary thing in Chicago; it has been widely embraced and enthusiastically used by people from virtually every community in the city. It is one of the most fully integrated social spaces I have ever seen in this town. The sense of ownership that everyone seems to have for the space suggests what public spaces and public art can be in the best sense. From bathing suit and Pamper clad small children splashing and laying in the shallow reflecting pool, to groups of teenagers lounging nonchalantly and parents sitting on the side or splashing with their children, Jaume Plensa’s fountain is a fantastical high tech urban concoction. It appears to be an urban black granite clad beach plopped right smack in the middle of downtown. 

As such Crown Fountain represents a major civic accomplishment and is a large part of what makes Millennium Park one of the nation’s singularly outstanding civic projects. Much of the history of urban planning was about controlling and in some cases isolating communities and populations from each other, the better to then control a divided populace. Public art is often thought of as bringing art work outside and situating it in publicly accessible spaces. There has been much interesting work done in that way. But public art that truly engages and creates a real relationship with the public and creates a social common ground is rarer. Plensa’s fountain does that and effectively blurs completely the line between art and public. This is urban planning in the service of both art and the city’s populace.
Comprised of video images of over one thousand Chicagoans of all races, ages and cultures, the two image emitting sculptures also literally reflects the very public they are meant to engage, thereby allowing everyone to see themselves in it. The periodic spouting of water from the mouths of the subjects brings everyone rushing to the spout in a mass of soaking wet multifarious humanity, reminding us that there are indeed moments, even in “the most segregated large city in America,” when we are more alike than different in our common citizenship.
UNStudio’s Burnham Pavilion, Millennium Park
While I was in the park I strode over to take a look at the recently opened Burnham Pavilion projects by architects Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel’s UNStudio’s. While I was happy to see that my favorite Chicago architect Doug Garofalo was the architect of record on the van Berkel project, the many people in the park who appeared initially to be drawn to it couldn’t quite grasp it as a utilitarian or aesthetic object after approaching it, though a few teenagers kept running at it full tilt, trying to scale the almost vertical supporting walls and leaving black sneaker marks behind on the smooth white surface for their efforts. The text on the accompanying panels alluded to the shifting and interestingly fragmented view of the city’s skyline that was revealed as one looked through the openings in the ceiling, but shift and crane as I might I saw mostly beautiful but empty sky. I’ll go back at night when perhaps it will look as interestingly illuminated as in this rendering above, though that deep rich blue sky is achievable only in time exposure photography.
Zaha Hadid’s Burnham Pavilion, Millennium Park
Construction on the Hadid pavilion has been delayed beyond its recently scheduled opening, as there have been some fabrication and construction complications and the skin of the structure is not yet in place (the photograph above is a rendering). While both projects commemorate the 100th year of Daniel Burnham’s grand plan for the building of metropolitan Chicago, it remains to be seen how the public will embrace or otherwise engage with these two temporary structures. Thankfully though Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain will be with us for the long haul.


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  • I'll have to check these out.

    The thing I always liked about "The Bean" sculpture is that you look up at the reflection from below, and you can't locate yourself. So you wave, and stand with everyone else, also waving and trying to find themselves in the crowd.

    I always thought there was something kind of poetic about that.


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