Chicago’s Magic Kingdom

Is Millennium Park a theme park for adults?

Classical peristyle in Millennium Park

The great urban park was a 19th-century American invention. It’s unlikely that we will ever again build anything as ambitious as Central Park, Golden Gate Park, or Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Land is simply too expensive and cities are too poor—just maintaining the parks that they’ve inherited strains their budgets. In any case, despite their popularity, urban parks with their old-fashioned cast-iron benches and their winding footpaths are a throwback to a politer, more reflective time. We build theme parks, not urban parks.

Chicagoans obviously don’t agree. The city has just spent almost half a billion dollars on Millennium Park, which opened last July. In its first six months, the downtown park has attracted more than 1.5 million visitors. This is an impressive number considering the park is only 24.5 acres—Central Park gets 20 million visitors annually, but it covers more than 800 acres. On a visitor-per-acre scale, Millennium Park must be the most popular park in the country.

Chicago’s new park may not be large, but it is crammed with attractions. The most prominent is a band shell and a large lawn (called, inevitably, the Great Lawn) that together can accommodate 11,000 people. In addition, there are fountains, sculptures, a large garden, event spaces, a restaurant, a bicycle station, and a 1,500-seat music and dance theater. The whole thing is built on top of a three-level parking garage and railroad tracks.

Jaume Plensa’s fountain

On a recent visit, it struck me that in many ways Millennium Park is a theme park. In one corner is Burnham’s World, which includes a Classical peristyle of fluted Doric columns, a formal lawn, lots of urns and formal planting beds, and light standards designed by the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Nearby is the Not-So-Enchanted Forest. Conceived by Kathryn Gustafson in an edgy, chic style, the three acres of prairielike landscape behind a topiary of flowering trees include a diagonal boardwalk and a water-course that resembles an industrial sluice. Next door, Artland consists of two plazas: one with Anish Kapoor’s stainless-steel sculpture (under wraps when I visited), titled Cloud Gate but known locally as “the Bean”; and Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa’s fountain. At first glance, the twin 50-foot rectangular prisms with water cascading down their glass-block faces look like leaky cooling towers. But the installation grows on you. Human faces are projected on the giant interactive video screens, which sounds corny but is curiously appealing and sometimes quite funny. The shallow pool is artfully designed to encourage wading.

Gehry’s band shell

Millennium Park even has its Cinderella Castle. Frank Gehry was an inspired choice to design the band shell. It is obvious by now that Gehry is the most accomplished Baroque architect since Borromini, and his exuberant confection is an ideal expression of music in the park. The gridded steel-and-glass high-rise towers of Michigan Avenue provide a perfect backdrop for his sculptural, freewheeling architecture.

The attractions of Millennium Park, which also include a strip of indoor and outdoor eateries facing a skating rink, are experienced individually, but—like most theme parks—they don’t mesh into a coherent whole. That’s a shame, but it may be inevitable, given that this is an attempt to appeal to a wide variety of tastes and sensibilities. It’s also a shame that Millennium Park has not learned an important lesson from the Magic Kingdom. The presence of so many security personnel, in bright orange vests, is much too obtrusive. They wander suspiciously around like museum guards (or tool around on Segways). It is as if, having created this public space, the authorities don’t quite trust us to behave. There are far too many signs, too—explaining, naming, directing, prohibiting. Corporate and private sponsorship paid for almost half the cost of the park, as we are ceaselessly reminded. But the most poignant of the signs are the ones that warn, “No Loitering.” As if there was any other reason to go to a park.