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Empty promises

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It's touted as 'a park for the 21st century', but now the inaugural fireworks have faded, does Chicago's Millennium Park justify the rhetoric and claims of its commissioners - or has an opportunity been missed? Andrew Mead reports

Four years late and costing $475 million (£260 million) - more than three times the original budget - Chicago Millennium Park has now opened, with a lot of razzmatazz, and high-profile contributions from Frank Gehry, artists Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa, and landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson. But does it live up to the hype?

The 10ha site in central Chicago is at the north-west corner of Grant Park, which was created after the 1909 Plan of Chicago, in line with that plan's Beaux Arts tendencies. To the east, beyond a couple of major highways, are the vast reaches of Lake Michigan, while immediately to the west is Michigan Avenue, with its architectural landmarks.

This north-west corner had long been an eyesore - a car park beside a hole in the ground where the railway tracks ran - so turning it into a green roof, with extras like an outdoor concert venue, became one of mayor Richard Daley's priorities.

In 1998 his chosen architect, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), presented its Millennium Park plan, firmly in the Beaux Arts tradition, but as more of the city's leading personalities got involved in the project - specifically John H Bryan, ex-chairman of food manufacturer Sara Lee and a virtuoso fund-raiser - it began to evolve, though only in a piecemeal way.

Bryan went on to raise more than $200 million (£110 million), with the biggest donors getting their designer of choice.

Hence, for instance, Henry Crown, a major shareholder in defence industry contractor General Dynamics, selected Spanish sculptor Plensa for the Crown Fountain, after an invited competition which also included Maya Lin and Robert Venturi. But one by one these new sponsored elements were just eased into the mundane, retrogressive plan, which remains the basis for the completed park.

As if you were in a contemporary museum, every space or feature seems to have a donor's name attached - so you reach Millennium Park from the east over Gehry's stainless-steel BP Pedestrian Bridge, which snakes eccentrically over Columbus Drive. A sensitive creature in Chicago's arts community says: 'Walking on that bridge was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life. It takes you on a journey in which you rise up and go back down, all the while feeling like you're undergoing a preparation for the soul. For me, it was like crossing the Red Sea - it was that astounding an experience' (Chicago SunTimes, 11.7.04). Crikey. But Gehry's main contribution is the 11,000-seat concert venue, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion and Great Lawn.

'Chicago, in my humble opinion, is architecturally the best American city. I knew Jay, so being able to do something in his memory is warm and fuzzy for me, ' says Gehry, in best 'bashful genius' mode. The pavilion comprises a 35m-high stainless-steel 'bandshell', connected to a steel trellis-like structure that arches over and defines the lawn. It's the bandshell that gives Gehry scope to be 'expressive', with forms that seem to be billowing in Chicago's infamous wind. 'I stood agog at the Gehry pavilion. Its maw of curling steel looks like a celestial gateway to another universe, ' writes Ann Raver (New York Times, 15.7.04).

Clearly Frank's fan base is still intact.

But even an enthusiast like the respected architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, Blair Kamin, acknowledges that the pavilion splits uneasily into an articulated front and disregarded back; still more than with the Guggenheim Bilbao, Gehry hasn't made a building that 'works' from every angle. As for the quality of the acoustics, it depends on where you sit. Those already less enamoured of Gehry might think that, when the global infatuation with him is over - as it must be a decade from now - his architecture will seem as bereft of substance as the Post-Modernism it disdainfully supplanted.

Stranded in the middle of the SBC Plaza, like an alien invader in a 1950s science fiction film, is yet more stainless steel in the form of a 10m-high, arched blob of a sculpture by Anish Kapoor. It's been nicknamed 'The Bean' by locals, but Kapoor reminds us how poetic he is by calling it Cloud Gate.

Those with long memories may recall that Kapoor was once an impressive artist, who made potent little pigmented sculptures - bright in colour, and often architectural in form, like tiny ziggurats. Today, though, his work often seems slick and vacuous, or overinflated, like his Marsyas in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall last year.

Cloud Gate has no real relation to its site: it could as well be in Brisbane or Brighton, had either of them wanted it and come up with the cash. The warped reflections in its polished swollen form, like the tricks of distorting mirrors in an old-fashioned fairground, might detain people for a while; and, responding readily to changes in light and weather, the sculpture should be more alive than inert. It will figure in countless photographs, if probably of the facile kind where people 'prop-up' the leaning Tower of Pisa, but it's unlikely to be a source of aesthetic revelations. As with Marsyas, some may find the story of the sculpture's realisation more interesting than the work itself.

Facing each other at the south-west corner of the park are the two 16m-high glass-block towers of Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain.

Water cascades down them and fills a shallow oblong pool in the black granite plaza where they stand - so shallow you can walk in it among the reflections. Within each tower is a huge LED screen on which the faces of numerous Chicagoans successively appear. At intervals their lips purse and they spit out a jet of water - which some people find amusing.

Plensa sees this as being in the tradition of gargoyles and Baroque fountains, with their water-spewing faces. He talks of the work that has gone into making this hi-tech fountain glitch-free; but perhaps some Chicago politicians will be watching the maintenance bills.

It's a crowd-pleaser and quite spectacular.

Altogether quieter is the Lurie Garden to the south-east, by Kathryn Gustafson with set designer Robert Israel and plant expert Piet Oudolf. Split by a diagonal boardwalk into two areas of contrasted vegetation, subtly lit at night and only revealing its secrets gradually, this should certainly restore Gustafson's reputation after the lukewarm reception of her Princess Diana memorial. But it is a world within a world - totally distinct from the overall Beaux Arts framework. It coheres, whereas the rest of the park is an assembly of one-off set-pieces, which are at odds with, or indifferent to, each other.

The Lurie Garden points up what Millennium Park lacks: an imaginative governing aesthetic. If Daley had acted wisely at the start, he would have staged an international competition for its design, in which Gustafson may well have been shortlisted. Other entrants would doubtless have included West 8, OMA, Foreign Office Architects, and a range of accomplished practices from France, Spain, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

As the landscape magazine Topos continually proves, there is no shortage now of firms who can fuse landscape architecture with urban design as this Chicago site demanded.

Such a procedure needn't have ruled out the involvement of other architects and artists alongside the winner, nor eliminated the chance for donors to attach their names to pavilions or various other features. But it would surely have produced a more enterprising plan for the park, not one that just repeats the right-angles of Chicago's powerful grid.

The design would have addressed the specifics of the site in ways that SOM failed to do.

There would have been a more sophisticated treatment of levels, promenades, vistas and enclaves, a richer and more integrated mix of parts. Again the city of Sullivan, Wright and Mies could have fostered the new - a scheme truly for the 21st century.

Mayor Daley hopes that tourists will flock to the Millennium Park, and perhaps - before the novelty wears off - they will, but what they'll find is a failure of vision that Chicago may come to regret.

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