Monday, June 29, 2015

Unleash the Mutant Mantises! At Maggie Daley, Michael Van Valkenburgh rethinks the Chicago Lakefront Park - Episode Two: The Lampposts Strike Back

(click images for larger view)
photograph courtesy Bob Johnson
Yesterday, we wrote about the most successful parts of Chicago's new Maggie Daley Park.   Perhaps not coincidentally, they're the most active parts of architect Michael Van Valkenburgh's design.  Van Valkenburgh does active really, really well.  Who would have guessed, then, that he had a bit of H R Giger secreted in his heart, or that he would use Maggie Daley as the opportunity to set it free.
Across the world, there have been many cases of discarded industrial infrastructure transformed into lush, green parks, but possibly never before has a new park deliberately been designed for nature to be dominated by the hardware.
These are the lightning standards of Maggie Daley Park.  There are thirteen of them, and they are monsters, perversely dominating almost every vista.
In an interview with Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, Van Valkenburgh explained Maggie Daley's lighting design as "a concept called moon lighting; many fewer and much taller light poles.  We did this at Brooklyn Bridge Park to great affect."

This is disingenuous. The lighting standards in Brooklyn Bridge Park are 35 foot-high telephone poles.  Those at Maggie Daley are 50 foot-high tripods.  At Brooklyn Bridge Park, many of the poles are set along the back, against an expressway that forms the parks perimeter.  At Maggie Daley, the standards are omnipresent, their beady light-bulb orbs always peering over your shoulder like the eyes of a painting that follow you across the room.  They march through the park like an invading band of colossi bent on conquest - over half as tall as the actual Wonder of the Ancient World Colossus of Rhodes.  Looking up at the soaring, man-spreading height, the voice of Shelly may even seem to echo in your ear . . .
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

But, you may ask, won't the trees eventually overtake and tame the lighting standards?  You should live so long - literally.
Van Valkenburgh told Kamin it will take a decade for the trees to double in size. After 25 years, those trees will still be only "close to mature."  Van Valkenburgh's own presentation drawings show the standards rising above the mature treetops.  To put this into perspective, the previous park on the site lasted less than 40 years before it had to be destroyed to repair the parking garage below.  If the same calculus holds true for Maggie Daley, it means there may only be a decade and a half of relative balance between the lighting standards and the trees before the whole thing gets ripped out again.
Despite Van Valkenburgh's aesthetic pretensions, his design is actually both product of and perfect design expression of three imperatives of the relentless, increasingly toxic efficiencies of our Age of Supply Chain:  consolidation, upscaling and homogenization.  Instead of a traditional park's hundreds of lighting fixtures, Maggie Daley boils it down to 13.  In place of the human-scale, a looming super-sizing.  Instead of a pleasing variation in light and shade, a monotonous slather of uniform foot-candles, accompanied by a slick p.r. campaign: it's like the moon! The gigantic standards make Maggie Daley feel less like a park than a high school athletic field. 
Having said all this, I'll be the first to admit that the standards have their own fascination.  They're a visually arresting urban-techno theater, a brazen, seductive counterpoint not only to nature, but to the constructed environment of the Randolph Street and landmarked Michigan Avenue streetwalls, bent on upstaging the height of even the tallest classic skyscraper.
My bet is that, over time, Van Valkenburgh's monsters will become objects of great public affection.  Far too big to ever fade into the landscape, they'll be embraced for their sheer chutzpah weirdness.  That kind of eccentricity, however, will not be possible if they ever became common in placement.  For that reason alone, no matter what efficiencies or cost savings they may promise, Maggie Daley Park should remain the refuge beyond which the 13 light-limbed behemoths are never allowed to roam.

Next:  Mistah Burnham—He Dead - Michael Van Valkenburgh Rethinks the Chicago Lakefront Park, Part III

Previously:  Strongest at the Corners - Michael Van Valkenburgh Rethinks the Chicago Lakefront Park, Part II

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Strongest at the Corners: At Maggie Daley, Michael Van Valkenburgh rethinks the Chicago Lakefront Park - Part One

The new Maggie Daley Park is both a major addition to Chicago's lakefront and a spur to questions as to what constitutes good park design.  This post, the first of four, explores the park's best features.
click images for larger view (recommended)
Maggie Daley Park had a very successful "soft" opening last December, but it didn't feel right to write about a new park while it was still frozen, brown and unblooming.  Now summer's come. It's finally a good time to take stock, and note how architect Michael Van Valkenburgh's design is both a clear break from traditional design along Chicago's downtown lakefront - and more than a little weird.
 On a Saturday morning earlier this month, the 26-acre, $60 million park had it's official dedication, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, his daughter Nora and other luminaries in attendance.  500 young voices drawn from the Chicago Childrens and After School Matters choirs, all clad in bright yellow shirts, joined the Third Coast Percussion Ensemble in performances that concluded with the world premiere performance  of a new work by Augusta Read Thomas honoring the legacy of the park's dedicatee, former Chicago First Lady, the late Maggie Daley.

There are many good things to say about Maggie Daley Park.  Primary among these is that it's not a museum building.  Richard M. Daley had worked with his usual arrogant swagger to force a new structure for the Chicago Children's Museum into Maggie Daley Park's predecessor, Daley Bi-Centennial Plaza, a serene, classically-styled 1970's park dating constructed atop a multi-level parking garage.  Daley and his minions sneered at the park dedicated to his late father as a "nowhere."  In fact, it had finally evolved into a quite lovely, serene, classically-styled refuge to the the hyperactivity of Millennium Park, the instant icon opened across Columbus Drive to the west in 2004.

Major water leaks into the underground garage forced the park to be completely stripped away to make repairs.  Daley saw that as a grand opportunity to cater to the monument-building ambitions of a Pritzker family heiress by giving a public park over to a private museum.  The ensuing battle was ugly and prolonged, with Daley smearing construction opponents as racist child-haters.  The coalition in favor of keeping the park, "Open, Free and Clear", however, was both broad and deep.  The opposition poisoned the well for the museum's already anemic fund-raising skills and - combined with  a major economic crash - ultimately persuaded the Children's Museum to stay at Navy Pier and improve its facilities there.
Maggie Daley Park under construction
photography courtesy Bob Johnson
Enter Michael van Valkenburgh, whose firm, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, may be the most prominent landscape architects at work in the United States today.

This June was a double-dip for Van Valkenburgh in Chicago. Just a week before the official dedication at Maggie Daley, there was the official opening of The 606 Bloomingdale Trail, an abandoned rail line converted into a nearly 3 mile long park, for which Van Valkenburgh was lead designer.
(seriously dude, click for larger view)
By design, the most successful sections of Maggie Daley Park are its most active, at opposing corners of the 26-acre site.   To the southeast, just north of Monroe is the three-and-a-half acre "Play Garden", a hilly sequence of family-friendly spaces dominated by the Tower Bridge, a bright-orange. 30-foot high suspension bridge set within a "Slide Crater" with a kid-friendly soft surface and a seating area for parents to relax while keeping an eye on their offspring.
There's also a boat to climb on . . .
. . . a half-buried whale . . .
. . . and even a lighthouse . .  .
Also now open is the "Enchanted Forest" with dead tree trunks planted upside-down to form arches.  A subversive homage to the nearly 900 trees ripped out when the old park was destroyed?
At the opposite, northwest corner of the park, along Randolph, is what, in the winter, is the skating ribbon, wrapping around two 40-foot climbing walls.
The geometrically irregular structures are covered in an explosion of multi-colored footholds, and at their end point rear up like the prow of a ship.
The 27,000 square-foot ribbon offers over 60% more area than a standard NFL hockey rink, stretched out to a nearly quarter-mile length that can accommodate 700 skaters at a time.  Using the ribbon is free, and skates can be rented for a modest fee.
Its first season was so successful it attracted 70,000 skaters and raked in nearly $600,000 in equipment rentals.
Brightly illuminated at night, the ribbon and climbing  walls are almost like a second sun, inserting a saucer of light at the feet of the black cat dark facades of the soaring skyscrapers that form the park's backdrop.
But now the ice is melted, not by the bright lights but by the warmth of summer.  The ribbon has become a running track and host to other warm-weather activities.

These are the high places of Maggie Daley Park.  But what of the valleys that lie between?  And, seriously, what's the deal with these?

Next:  Unleash the Mutant Mantises - At Maggie Daley Park, Michael Van Valkenburgh rethinks the Chicago lakefront park, Part Two.