Sunday, August 21, 2011

On an Overgrown Path

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As Chicago grew to greatness, there were two basic types of park design, the "passive" designed for strolling amidst scenic vistas, making the new housing for the affluent rising along the boulevards even more attractive, and the "active", engineered to channel the leisure time of emerging Chicago's largely immigrant working class into wholesome programs and activities - swimming pools, baseball diamonds, field houses and the like.
You can see the persistence of the two approaches even in Chicago's front yard, Grant Park.  The part east of the railroad tracks, a "passive" park that been allowed to deteriorate and depopulate to point where vagrants and drug dealers were the primary users, was transformed into Millennium Park, cram-full of attractions such as Cloud Gate, the Pritzker Pavilion, and Crown Fountain, with a huge restaurant thrown in for good measure.  Daley Bicentennial Plaza, east of the tracks at end of Frank Gehry's BP bridge, was more "passive", an oasis from the hyperactivity to the west, suitable for strolling, relaxing, reflecting, or taking your kids to the small playlot.  Hence the battle to keep the eastern half free from a new building for Chicago Children's Museum, complete with jagged, soaring skylights.
An argument is made that in a city like Chicago, dense and crammed with structure, the "passive" park's attempt to emulate nature is a anachronistic affectation.  This is the city, it's man-made - get over it.

I remain unconvinced.  The global, supply-chain economy has created a supply-chain architecture, increasingly mechanized and dehumanized, built on a Six Sigma value system where efficiency is the highest possible good and variability a hated enemy.  Whereas the best architecture of the age of Mies was an expression of regularity and order as a response to the violent anarchy of the time, the best architecture of our time is usually a disruption of the straitjacket of supply-chain architecture.
Within this context, I believe that an expression of nature, as natural and variable as our meddling little hands can make it, is an essential relief in a city like Chicago.  For me, the best part of the Chicago riverwalk is where the trees and flowers take you away from the hard edges of Wacker Drive, where the seating isn't a concrete bench or a metal seat anchored into the ground, but the movable chairs under the shade of tall trees that let the visitor improvise their own space.
That's also why my favorite new public space in Chicago is the Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk, designed by Studio/Gang with WMD Environmental.  We still have a full article on the Boardwalk coming up, but this weekend it was a great place to visit.
At the close of its second summer, the Boardwalk is really coming into its own.  On Saturday, after the morning thunderstorms and rain, the sun glistened in the moisture of the plants and flowers.  Nature, which in the Boardwalk's first season was sedate and controlled, was, on Saturday, bursting through, as if the prairie were about to take back the city. Black-eyed Susans, Blazing Stars, Cardinal flowers, Cup Plants, to name just a few, were growing in abundance.
Yes, we need soccer fields and baseball diamonds, skate parks and bicycle paths, and all the other resources parks can offer, but sometimes it's a good thing to encounter an alternative path.

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