Preposterous Universe

Monday, August 09, 2004
Millennium Park: Franks and Beans

This weekend I had a chance to visit Chicago's latest attraction, the somewhat-misnamed Millennium Park. This is a parcel of land just north of the Art Institute, adjacent to Grant Park, that had been languishing as a railroad yard, until the city powers decided to spruce it up as part of a celebration for the year 2000. Somewhat behind schedule and substantially over budget, the project has finally been completed, and has garnered rave reviews from visitors thus far.

Easily the most talked-about component of Millennium Park is the large reflective statue by Anish Kapoor, officially named "Cloud Gate" but universally dubbed "The Bean." (Click for full-sized version.)

Now, I had actually seen a model for the park a couple of years ago, and had no doubt that this abstract beast was going to be a complete disaster. Let me publicly state that I was completely wrong; the full-sized bean is strangely compelling and irresistible. Reflecting the skyline and the sky itself with a gentle distortion, this simple shape grabs your attention and holds it with an eerie fascination.

You can also walk underneath the bean, where Kapoor has manipulated the reflections to produce interesting multiple images. Viewers can happily alternate between looking for images of themselves in the interior of the bean, and wondering at the ease with which their fellow visitors are entertained.

Photos don't really do the bean justice, but you can't help but taking many pictures when you are in its presence; I predict with confidence that within a short time this sculpture will be recognized as the most-photographed object in the world. (Note that the sculpture is actually not complete; the visible seams are to be welded to form an unbroken smooth surface.)

To be honest, the simplicity of the bean is also its limitation; it only provides perhaps fifteen minutes of contemplation before you are ready to move on to something else. Fortunately, the Art Institute is just to the south, so a pilgrimage need not be exclusively beanocentric.

The other new attractions in the park are also worth attention. An interesting, although less obviously successful, art installation is the computerized fountain designed by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa. It consists of two rectangular towers that gently spray water in all directions, and project moving images of faces (apparently supposed to be representative citizens of Chicago). At occasional intervals the faces appear to spit water from their mouths, in a reference to more classical fountain designs.

While the fountains don't have the immediate and universal appeal of the bean, they are a big hit with kids, who can frolic around in the water to their heart's content. An obvious worry is the upkeep associated with the fountain systems -- these would be a complete disaster if they were allowed to fall into disrepair.

Before the bean captured everyone's heart, the centerpiece of the Millennium Park project was a new band shell designed by Frank Gehry. It brings to mind giant chocolate shavings on the top of an especially elaborately decorated cake (if chocolate shavings were made of stainless steel).

This photo isn't a very good view of the band shell itself, because I wanted to note a cute science fact about the trellis extending out from the shell and covering a wide section of park in which visitors can relax and listen to concerts. You will notice the speakers hanging from the trellis itself; often attempts to amplify outdoor musical performances result in acoustic nightmares. To prevent this from happening, the designers calculated the time it would take sound to reach from the stage to different points in the audience, and have built in an appropriate delay in the signal sent to the speakers so that the sound reaches the listener from both sources simultaneously. Now that is good planning.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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