New city jewel invites us downtown to play
The architect can call it what he wants, but the people of Chicago have spoken: The silver legume-shaped sculpture in Millennium Park is now and forevermore the Bean. With the official opening today of Mayor Daley's long-delayed, way-over-budget dream project, the critics will have their say about its aesthetics and functionality. Here, too, the people will have the final word. We think it will be "fun."
That's not a word we've heard much in discussions of Millennium Park, and not just because of concerns about its great expense. In a city with Chicago's architectural history, there's a lot of pressure to live up to its vaunted standards. Will Frank Gehry's hydralike music pavilion one day be discussed in the same reverent tones as the works of Wright and Sullivan and van der Rohe? After spending $475 million in taxpayer and donor money -- $325 million more than originally planned -- will the City of Chicago be better off culturally than it was? Couldn't those millions have been better spent?
To be sure, during the ongoing budget crisis, health and social services would give anything for a fraction of the $270 million in taxpayer funds spent on the project. But it can be argued that you can't put a monetary value on public works that enhance the image and quality of life of a city. In so doing, they stand to draw huge numbers of city and suburban dwellers downtown to reclaim some of the communal urban experience that has been lost and to draw people from outside Chicago to marvel again at the vision and cultural reach of this architectural First City.
Cities are defined by progress as much as history. It is the function of architects and other artists to reflect both of those aspects of their identity -- and, in so doing, declare their will and wherewithal to push into the future, no matter what dark threats may be gathering on the horizon.
Like Soldier Field, another huge and controversial undertaking that forced people to rethink their notions of Chicago's ties to tradition, Millennium Park is about user-friendliness as much as urban expression. It invites people to stroll and bike and picnic, to sightsee in a breathtaking new way. To gaze at the skyline as it reflects off the Bean -- OK, "Cloud Gate" -- is to reclaim its sense of wonder. To study the faces of actual Chicagoans digitally captured on the two 50-foot glass-brick towers in the Crown Fountain is to reflect on the city's rich ethnic mix. As for the band shell, we count on the music sounding as good as the structure looks in setting off the highrises behind it.
Even with all its finishing touches in place, the park won't be perfect. But considering the burst of energy and new life it will bring to the city, any flaws will shrink in importance. The mayor has taken a lot of guff for seeing this project through, in the face of galling criticism. Now is the time to congratulate him, again, for standing by his vision of and for Chicago.