We were coming back from the Seminary Coop Bookstore’s annual members-only sale last night. Eco-freaks that we are, we took the train to Hyde Park rather than drive. So when we got off the South Shore electric line at Randolph Street Station with half an hour to spare before catching the train out to Geneva, Carol said, “Let’s go look at Millenium Park.”
I had heard a good deal about the Pritzker Pavillion, the stage designed by Frank Gehry, and I had seen it from a distance, but I had not walked through it. In a word, it was disappointing. The curvy stainless steel proscenium arch around the stage was typical Frank Gehry, except more banal than usual. At first it looks wild and new, but pretty soon you realize he’s using a centuries old architectural vocabulary. Basically it is just a proscenium arch that’s not much different from Baroque arches — except in stainless steel, and without the rich detailing of Baroque architecture. After a few minutes, I started laughing sadly at it because it has such an unfortunate resemblance to the hair styles of late-career Elvis — the bloated, sweating, drug-hypnotized Elvis. And after a few more minutes, I began to see the lack of attention to details, which made it look like one of those Western store fronts that looks really big from the front, but which turns out to be a sad, tiny building from the back.
Worse is the trellis of stainless steel pipes over the lawn seating area. Designed to support loudspeakers, the trellis has the unfortunate side effect of making you feel as if you are in a cave. One of the reasons Chicago is such an extraordinary city, architectually speaking, is that buildings in the Loop soar to the sky, taking your spirit with them — it’s the opposite of a cathedral where your spirit soars only to be stopped by a roof, because in Chicago it’s the open sky over your head. But Gehry’s trellis stops that feeling of soaring dead. The trellis hovers oppressively over you, controlling your spirit and channeling it the same way a closed shopping mall does.
Next we walked over BP Bridge, also designed by Gehry. The bridge is almost quite nice — almost. The problem is, Gehry tries to be sculptural, but can’t quite pull it off. The bridge looks kind of cool from a distance, but when you get closer you see there are dead spots in the curves of the bridge, places where the curves are interrupted by an unintentional flat spot, or where the curves don’t quite flow right. Other details of the bridge are badly done, too. (Maybe the architect did not adequately oversee the building contractor?) It’s covered with what looks like stainless steel shingles on the outside, but as you walk across it the walls lining the walkway are dead flat — which is incongruous at best, confusing at worst. And ultimately, the massing of the bridge just curves around and doesn’t say much of anything.
The worst thing about Gehry’s contributions to Millenium Park is that they seem to completely ignore the incredible wealth of architecture to their west, and the glorious natural beauties of the lakeshore to their east. There is no sense of place, no sense that you are in CHICAGO! — instead, you could be in any generic city center or shopping mall from Bahrain to L.A.