There’s no better place to start your visit to Chicago than at Millennium Park. This nearly-brand-new park at the northwestern corner of Grant Park immediately gives you an appreciation for the type of public art that helps define the city. You’ll want to run through Crown Fountain, gaze at the giant mirrored bean, otherwise known as Cloud Gate, and kick back for a musical performance in the amphitheater. I found the park so fascinating and so attractive, that I visited 3 times in just two days.
You’d expect with a name like “Millennium Park”, that the area probably opened in the year 2000. It didn’t quite make it. Construction lasted from 1999 to 2004. The final price tag was also a surprise: nearly $500 Million, with many elements of the park coming in at 3 times their original estimated cost (or more!).
The biggest, boldest, and most captivating thing to see in Millennium Park is Cloud Gate. It’s a giant silver sphere, carefully polished and buffed to remove any sign of seams. From some angles, it looks like a huge drop of mercury fell from the sky.
The coolest thing about Cloud Gate isn’t the “bean” itself, but the reflections you’ll see, as you walk around it. Cloud Gate is a photographer’s dream — perfectly positioned to reflect the buildings that line the western and northern edges of Millennium Park. Of course, you may never be able to capture a reflected shot of the skyline without dozens of people milling about, as well.
- Cloud Gate was officially dedicated in May, 2006 — about 2 years after it first went on display, and about one week after my visit.
- The sculpture was created by British artist Anish Kapoor, who didn’t decide on the name until it was almost complete.
- Original expense estimates came in around $6 Million, in the end, the “bean” cost nearly four times that amount: $23 Million. Fortunately for Chicago taxpayers, it was entirely privately sponsored.
- Cloud Gate is 33 feet tall, 66 feet long, and 42 feet wide, weighing 110 tons.
Cloud Gate appears to be an intriguing kind of “funhouse mirror” when viewed from the side. But step underneath, look up, and it becomes downright confusing. The underbelly of Cloud Gate is called its “Omphalos” — think of it as a belly button. It’s 12 feet high, making it too tall to touch, so you can only gaze up at the severely distorted reflections and wonder, “is it a hole into the center of the bean? Or, does it get smaller or bigger up there? And, why is my reflection on that side, instead of this side?”
Personally, I think the above picture looks like a stainless-steel toilet from an airplane lavatory. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Anish Kapoor had in mind.
As I mentioned earlier, I visited Millennium Park three times during my two-day visit. The second and third visits were at night. I strongly recommend you experience the bean both ways–in daylight, and under the glow of city lights. As a bonus, the entire area is likely to be less crowded around 10 p.m. or later.
Crown Fountain may be the creepiest piece of public art in Chicago. Two 5-story glass-block structures stand at either end of a long, but extremely shallow pool of water. Behind the glass blocks are LED panels, forming a huge vertical TV screen. The video wall displays pictures of a diverse array of Chicago residents, who stare, smile, and occasionally spit a stream of water out of their mouths.
If you look closely at the above picture, you can see the hole where the stream of water occasionally emerges. The fountain wasn’t spitting during my visit — it must only do so in the warmer months.
Instead of dodging traffic on Columbus Drive (and then climbing the stairs that lead into Millennium Park), walk across the BP Bridge. It’s a wide, winding, gentle grade that drops you at the edge of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. It’s also beautiful at night, and safe too: on both of the two nights that I crossed it, there was a police officer standing watch at the top.
From the air, the BP Bridge appears to be a large, winding ribbon, leading up to the gigantic “bow” on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Personally, I think the bridge looks more like a giant snake.
Jay Pritzker Pavilion
I can only imagine how great it would be to enjoy an open-air concert at the remarkable Jay Pritzker Pavilion, while gazing up at the city skyline. The Pavilion was silent during my visit, but it was still a visual sight to behold.
The band shell appears to be the giant bow atop a Christmas present. Light reflects off of it in pinks, purples, and blues. There are probably thousands of seats near the pavilion, and an expansive lawn behind them — enough room for tens of thousands of people to enjoy a concert.
Looking north you can see the Pritzker Pavilion’s bow, and the skeleton structure that supports lights and speakers. Beyond it, the old and new Prudential buildings, and the Aon Center.
Note: This trip was first published in 2006.