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.


Anonymous said...

Why do the play structures have to look like they come straight out of Disneyland? The park does not respect the dignity of the Michigan Avenue wall of buildings or Millennium Park or the Art Institute. I'm all for play areas for kids but couldn't kids climb on naturally colored and textured structures?

Anonymous said...

In addition, the play equipment selected does not seem to accomodate the masses very well. For example, the playground swing is one of the most timeless, versitale and inexpensive mainstay. Here, the only form of swing is in an area that contains only three oversized basket swings where 3 times as many traditional swings may have been installed. This leads to a long line of crabby kids and a line up of strollers waiting for a swing to become open. It feels more than you are at Great America than in a public park...

Leslie Case said...

Appreeciate your blog post