Millennium Park: Chicago wonder to wander

The city whose name came from a Native American phrase for “smelly onion patch” has a new air of distinction – one that builds upon an already strong architectural identity.

Millennium Park, a $475 million project on 24.5 acres off of Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago, is an amazing place to wander. Its bold flourishes have turned an eyesore of rail yards into a giant outdoor gallery with sculptures that will become city icons.

This is both a celebration of high tech capabilities and a way to uplift the city’s face, a creation of some of the world’s top designers, such as architect Frank Gehry of California.

There is a 4,000-seat music pavilion whose stage is topped with giant curves of stainless steel that – from a distance – look like they’ll blow backward with the wind or the next mega-amp concert. This will be the new location for the free, outdoor and classical Grant Music Festival.

There also is a 925-foot bridge made of the same glistening steel, plus a floor of hardwood, which snakes its way over Columbus Drive, then links the new park to Grant Park and Lake Michigan.

Underground, mostly, is a 1,500-seat theater for music and dance performances. Elsewhere is a 2.5-acre ornamental garden with a 15-foot-high hedge, more than 200 kinds of perennial plants, plus many strategically placed pools of water and light.

The three-block promenade presently showcases “Family Album,” oversized Uwe Ommer photos of more than 100 families from around the world. It is an outdoor show, in place until Sept. 26.

Most stunning, though, are two monstrous sculptures that become ever-changing pieces of performance art that involve passersby.

Two towers of glass, each 50 feet high and joined by a shallow reflecting pool, make up the Crown Fountain. Water spurts and falls from all four sides, making it a misty area. But the towers also become video screens that can project 1,000 faces of Chicago residents, and images of nature.

This is a place for kids to splash, and for adults to ponder the visions of city and people that cover the ground and walls.

Equally as striking is Cloud Gate, one of the biggest sculptures in the world. At 110 tons, it looks like both a shiny kidney bean and a moving drop of mercury.

Gawkers can walk under it, or examine the huge, pulled skyline reflection. It is 33 feet high, 66 feet long and no measurements to explain how striking the image is on a sunny day. There are no seams, so there are no interruptions on this metallic canvas.

For more about the park, go to www.millenniumpark.org or call (877) CHICAGO. (That’s not to be confused with www.millenniumperk.com, the website for a nearby coffeehouse.)

The City That Works doesn’t lack architectural diversity, and one way to better understand this is to take a one-hour architecture cruise on the Chicago River. It is the city’s top tourist activity.

This tour is one of dozens presented by the Chicago Architectural Foundation, an organization that has made public education a priority.

Tour leaders are working architects such as Jon Young, who has a passion for the city’s “brilliant, eclectic building mixes” and wants to share his enthusiasm and knowledge with visitors.

What makes Chicago structurally unique? There are many answers, and the Sears Tower is merely one of them.

Guides such as Jon explain the challenges of building something new in this urban hub, and the miraculous engineering that keeps the structures standing.

So we learn that the Eisenhower Expressway runs through the third floor of the old art deco post office downtown. And that the Sears Tower, big enough to have its own Zip Code, is just a bunch of steel tubes, connected to give them structural rigidity.

“Get nine straws and make them different sizes,” he says. “It’s that beautifully simple.”

Jon talks about the amount of infrastructure that lies underground, and that includes Millennium Park, whose layers – under the sod – include Styrofoam, concrete, a parking garage, a train route.

“That’s what I love about Chicago,” the amused guide says. “It doesn’t have to be easy. It just has to get done.”

This also is where to learn how and why the Chicago River runs backwards, and that the city has 52 moveable bridges, more than any place else in the world.

The architecture cruise is offered daily from May through September, then on weekends in fall and spring. It departs from Navy Pier. Go to www.shorelinesightseeing.com or call (312) 222-9328 to learn more.