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July 2015
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How One Man Designed the Most Musical Park in America


Chicago’s Millennium Park is one of the most popular parks in the United States, according to TripAdvisor. Part of the Park’s allure comes, no doubt, from the incredible amount of free music that audiences can enjoy there each summer. The Grant Park Musical Festival, the nation’s only free, outdoor classical music series of its kind, has been providing visitors with exceptional concerts for over 80 years.

Architect Ed Uhlir, design director of the Millennium Park Project and executive director of the not-for-profit Millennium Park, Inc., spoke with WFMT to give you a history of the Park’s various pavilions over time, and to tour of the current Park’s other special features. Uhlir, who has worked with the Chicago Park District since 1970, explains how he worked with approximately twelve different architectural design firms to make Millennium Park the most musical park in America.

The History of Performance Pavilions in Downtown Chicago

The Original Band Shell

“The first pavilion, which was based on the design of the Hollywood Bowl, was a series of concentric planes that went back from a larger concentric circle to a smaller one in the back. If you’ve ever been the Hollywood Bowl, it’s almost identical. In fact, the park district architects at the time went to Los Angeles to study that design and they brought it back. The major difference was the audience area was totally flat, while the Hollywood Bowl has a really nice visual aspect to it for the audience. So it was always intended to be a temporary  facility.” (Ed Uhlir)

The Petrillo Bandshell

“The second pavilion was sort of wedge-shaped, trapezoidal-shaped, made of a translucent material called kalwall. It was also intended to be temporary, and the interesting thing about it was that it was constructed  to be taken apart, stored somewhere and then re-erected, and this was because there was a prohibition against building permanent structures in Grant Park — although it wasn’t necessary to do that for this one, because bandstands are exempted from this condition of no structures in the park.

But it was made to be demountable, and the park district paid $1.4 million to build it. It was up the first year, 1978. The second year, the park district went out to bid to have it taken down, stored, and re-erected, and the cost to do that was $420,000, which was a lot of money back then. So the park district board decided, “We’re not gonna do it. If someone wants to sue us and take away the home of this orchestra, they can go ahead and do it.” Well, no one sued, and it was still there.” (Ed Uhlir)

The Pritzker Pavilion

“The Pritzker Pavilion was designed by Frank Gehry, who is probably one of the most famous living architects right now.  I was assigned to go out to California to meet with Frank Gehry and talk him into doing the project – which wasn’t that easy. He’d taken on a lot of work already, and he wasn’t able to work on a new design for about six months. In the meantime, we were building the park: The garage was under construction.

“If you look down on the plan of the Pritzker Pavilion, you’ll see a crisscrossing of these large pipes that span 300 feet. It’s pretty amazing;  it’s a net structure and it really, to me, the experience is like entering a cathedral. You know you’re in a space that’s unique because you look up and you see this sort of vault that reminds me of a Gothic cathedral, actually.”

“So you’re entering this space, and your focus is on the stage, which is pretty unique too. It’s made of Douglas fir plywood, it’s designed to be acoustically perfect in terms of the orchestra hearing themselves — you can’t make great music unless you have an environment that promotes that. We had a specially-designed riser system by Schuler and Shook, a local firm that designs stages, and those risers transmit vibration. So, it’s interesting that even the Chicago Symphony Orchestra players admit that this facility is great to make music in, even better that Orchestra Hall – though I probably shouldn’t say that on the air, I guess. But they’ve made those comments before!”

“The one thing Gehry did that was pretty unique was this device called the trellis, which spans not only the seating area but what we call the Great Lawn. Previous to this, architects had proposed putting columns on the lawn that would hold up speakers. The mayor said, ‘No way are we going to obstruct anyone’s vision,’ so Frank Gehry came up with the trellis.”

“The structure design was done by Skidmore & Merrill. It allows us to locate speakers critically across the lawn so that we provide the optimum distribution of sound for the audience. So it’s an incredible experience because you can hear the music and it seems to be coming from the front of the house, but it’s actually coming overhead.”

“And there’s a secondary system for what we call enhanced sound, which is unique in the world, and that is a system that allows us to create the effect of reverberation. So we’ve basically created a virtual orchestra hall of sound, even though it’s open to the elements.”

“So that’s one thing it has that no one else has in the world. We have tremendous seating capacity: There are 4,000 seats that are fixed seats, and the lawn can hold another 7 or 8,000 people. And we’ve had concerts that go beyond that, depending on who it is, of course. So the music experience is tremendous.”

“There was some hesitation, initially, because this system had never been installed anywhere in the world. And Mayor Daley was nervous about spending all the money on this facility and not having what he called “the greatest sound system in the world.” We tried to reassure him that it was possible, but it had never been done, never been heard, so he was dubious. We had to spend a lot of money to do testing to find out if it indeed was a [good] sound system.”

“So to dispel the mayor’s concerns, we hired sort of the world’s experts to come and listen in a performance before it opened of the Grant Park Symphony.  One of the critics who heard the first performance said, ‘Well, you know, the sound system just takes time to learn the system. When you’re used to driving a Ford, which was the system that was considered over the Petrillo shell, and suddenly, you have a Maserati sound system, it takes you a while to figure out how to drive it.'”

“So I think the system is designed to deal with the ambient noise from the city. We have a sound booth which is right in the middle of the seating area and that’s because it’s necessary to have the ability to hear what’s coming directly out of the sound system and to be able to adjust the volume and the other controls to overcome things like sirens and airplanes. The mayor did us one big favor, though: When he closed Meigs Field, he eliminated a lot of the airplane noise.” (Ed Uhlir)


Upgrades to the Pritzker Pavilion

“And now the Pritzkers have been very generous: They provided an endowment. We’re using that endowment to continue to make upgrades on the facility. Endowment can’t be used to do general maintenance that the city would do, but it’s been used to make enhancements. To give you an example, we paid for brand-new speakers; about half the speakers were replaced with a new, better speaker system.”

“This year, we’re also doing some changing-out of some of the sound boards and mixing boards. They’re more state-of-the-art than they were originally. So we split those costs 50-50 with the city, and that money will continue to be used to keep the facility in great shape.”

“We’re always looking for ways to enhance the experience, and we’re gonna be experimenting this fall with new LED lights. If you’ve been to the facility at night, there are color lights that play of the surface of the metal elements, and we’ll be looking to change those to more energy-efficient and controllable LED lights so we can obtain many more colors.”

“But we’re also looking at kinetic options: being able to project different patterns and things on the facility. So those are the kinds of upgrades we’re using that endowment money for as the corpus expands and we use the interest on the principal to make those improvements.” (Ed Uhlir)

Other Special Features of the Park

Cloud Gate

“The rectilinear pattern of Millennium Park still remains: There’s still that connection to the rest of the park with these formal alleys of trees.  So the original designers planned this succession of small rooms to large rooms as you move towards the lake. So the smallest rooms were along Michigan Ave. – and when I talk about ‘rooms,’ these are landscape rooms.”

“That tradition is maintained in Millennium Park, so we have smaller spaces along Michigan Ave., to the grand spaces that are the Great Lawn and the Pritzker Pavilion. And then the big space – Maggie Daley Park – is further to the east. So if you look at a bird’s eye view, it still has that rectilinear pattern, but what we’ve done is insert these unique and contemporary elements within that landscape framework.  So the landscape was a frame, and we put these unique elements in them: like the Lurie Garden, like the Cloud Gate sculpture (pictured above), like certainly the Crown Fountain.”

“Now the park’s open it’s been a tremendous boon for Chicago. Cloud Gate is the sixth most popular icon in the United States – the Washington Monument and others are ahead of it, and Central Park is ahead of Millennium Park. But that’s a terrific number for Chicago, who’s trying to increase its viability as a city for tourism.”

“We did an economic study in 2011, and it determined that Millennium Park brings in $1.4 billion a year in tourism dollars. And when you look at the cost of building it versus just the annual cost that it creates for the city’s economy, it’s a no-brainer that we should have done Millennium Park, and it didn’t cost that much considering what it does for the city.” (Ed Uhlir)


Crown Fountain

“The Crown Fountain was designed by Jaume Plensa, underwritten by the Crown family. It is an interactive piece of art: it has two great 50-foot-tall glass towers, and the faces of 1,000 Chicagoans are on LED screens just behind the front-facing glass block. They’re randomly selected by a computer just underneath the towers, and they included a cross-section of Chicago in terms of age, gender, and ethnic origin.”

“Those faces come on for about 6 minutes, and the last 20 seconds they do their “gargoyle effect,” where they spit a stream of water into the reflecting pool. It’s a great place to watch people; it’s a great place for kids. We had no idea it would become the free water park in Chicago. Kids come in their bathing suits now just to play all day.”

“Last year, we asked Jaume Plensa to do some temporary sculptures to enhance his design of the Crown Fountain. So we have 1,000 portraits on the fountain, and he added four monumental sculptures of heads of young girls. So we have 1,004 Portraits, which is the name of the exhibition.” (Ed Uhlir)


Lurie Garden

“This used to be a dead zone, and now it’s filled with life, and people come here all day long just to experience the wonderful things that are available in Millennium Park, starting with the Lurie Garden. It’s underwritten with an endowment by Ann Lurie; the foundation maintains it. And it’s uniquely designed by the plant materials: all perennials by Piet Oudolf who’s a plantsman from Hummelo, Netherlands. He also designed the highline plants in New York City. It’s incredible — we don’t use pesticides or herbicides.”

“It’s considered a year-round garden, in that there’s always something happening, even in the winter; the structures of the plants are beautiful in the snow. So you can come to the garden all year. We have lots of free programs and it’s a pretty unique environment. We have two beehives, and we don’t use pesticides or herbicides, as I said, and that really attracts a lot of unique insects and birds. We have sightings of over 80 birds that we’ve identified in the garden. We used to have rabbits, but I think coyotes are taking care of that problem for us.” (Ed Uhlir)


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