Towns and a City
Jun 30, 2009
|We settled into our new campground which, we discovered, is like so many in this area in that it caters mainly to weekend and vacation campers. Within a very short time after we arrived, we were surrounded by groups of people, including lots of children (this place has tons of activities for kids) and dogs and usually involving at least one campfire. But we were mostly pretty comfortable despite the high temperatures and corresponding humidity we had for most of the time we were in this area – at least we had sufficient power to run our air conditioner almost constantly.
For the remainder of our stay we alternated quiet time by ourselves in our rig with visits to the Wishnies or side trips to small towns in the area. We found that “antique” stores are a big thing in most of these small towns and speculated that the locals have discovered that having lots of summer visitors (many from the Chicago area) is a good excuse to clean out their attics and garages and put everything into an “antique” store – it’s like one multi-store yard sale! Jo and Margaret looked pretty thoroughly through lots of them, finding way too many things we remembered from our childhood (or even that we still have and use to this day!), but nothing to buy. Fred and Ian usually found a convenient bench and exchanged stories, political opinions or RV advice, occupying themselves fairly happily until “the girls” had looked at everything and were ready to move on.
By Sunday the weather had turned dramatically cooler and was very windy – it may have driven some of the weekenders home early, as it was hardly swimming pool weather, and even we found it uncomfortable to sit outside because of the wind. There were regular predictions of rain and thunderstorms, but most of that missed us, for which we were grateful. We were just glad to have a break from the heat and humidity – although we’re used to heat, we’re more accustomed to Arizona’s single-digit humidity than readings in the 90% range!
The big event of this part of our visit, however, was our planned trip to Chicago to see Millennium Park and the new addition to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Millennium Park is maybe the biggest thing to have happened in Chicago in years, maybe even within the last century or more. It began construction in 1998 and finally opened in 2004. Much of the cost was covered by private (mostly corporate) donations, as is evidenced by the corporate names attached to every attraction, but it is in every way a public space. (Click on the link above for the general website; the Art and Architecture section gives more information about all the amazing attractions.) We began by finding the parking garage (the park has been called the world’s largest rooftop garden, since the entire park is built on top of the parking garage or over railroad tracks) and were happy to see that it had ample clearance and turn space to accommodate Fred’s truck – always a consideration and frequently a problem for all of us who travel with oversized pick-up trucks.
The Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion is the centerpiece of the park. No matter where you are, your eye is drawn to its unusual lines, which strongly reminded me of the shavings that curl off when a woodworker planes a piece of wood. But, as unusual as the bandstand itself is (and it’s pretty unusual), perhaps more important for a public space is the Great Lawn which provides lounging and listening space for thousands of people to hear the concerts and other performances regularly held on the stage of the Pavilion. There is a massive web of criss-crossing steel bars which looks like a trellis meant to support a tent roof or flowering vines but which in fact exists solely to support the speakers which are part of a very advanced, acoustically innovative sound system. As we can attest (there was an orchestra rehearsal in progress on the stage when we arrived), even when the performers on stage are mere specks, visually, the sound is clear and nearly perfect. It was designed to make this outdoor space the equivalent of an indoor concert hall and apparently works quite well. As for the bandstand itself, it is typical of most of Gehry’s work and opinions are sharply divided. Even among the four of us we couldn’t really agree whether we liked it or not. It is certainly striking and I found it hard to take my eyes (or camera) off it, but like it? I’m not sure. Look at the pictures and decide for yourself.
Gehry also designed a bridge (his first, I think, and maybe even his only one), which we all liked very much. It is a graceful swoop of steel (with a comfortable wood-slat walking surface) connecting Millennium Park with the rest of Grant Park across Columbus Drive, a major thoroughfare.
On the other side of the Great Lawn (the west side) is one of the most popular features of the Park – Cloud Gate (AKA the “jellybean”), designed by British artist Anish Kapoor. It defies description, so you’ll just have to look at the pictures – as you can see, we enjoyed it a lot and it’s a photographer’s delight! Although there were a few bird droppings to be seen and the inevitable thousand or so hand-prints placed by curious visitors, it’s remarkably clean for an outdoor sculpture – I wouldn’t like to be the park maintenance crew with the job of polishing it regularly! Note to those of you in Phoenix: yes, this is the same artist who made the black, similar-looking but smaller, piece prominently displayed in the Phoenix Art Museum.
Down the way from Cloud Gate there is an outdoor “gallery” of interesting sculpture, but most of the attention is demanded by The Crown Fountain. There are two huge towers, made up of glass blocks, over which water flows continually into a reflecting pool in between the towers. But the most fascinating feature is that each tower is actually an LED screen on which is projected a video of the face of a Chicago resident (we thought perhaps they were live, but I think, upon further research, that they were filmed over time and selections made to show the diversity of the Chicago population). We were mesmerized by watching the videos, each of which shows the face of a person, who may move his or her eyes and mouth but is otherwise perfectly still, smiling or not. After several minutes they purse their lips or look as though they are blowing smoke out of their mouths, while the fountains shoot a stream of water from the “open mouth”. It’s fascinating, a bit weird, technologically very complex and, we thought, totally cool. We stood there quite a while – long enough to see the pictures change several times. Occasionally the faces are replaced by what looks like video of a river flowing over rocks or maybe clouds in the sky – it’s hard to tell but it’s more restful than the faces, which can be a bit overwhelming after a while. Meanwhile people (mostly kids, but some “grown-ups”) walk or run around in the shallow reflecting pool, splashing water and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Down the middle of the park, between the Great Lawn and the street next to the Art Institute, is the Lurie Garden, a welcome relief and counterpoint to the modern, mostly hard-surfaced, elements in the rest of the park. The garden covers 5 acres and includes a number of closely planted beds, separated by walkways and some water features, in which we saw a number of people dangling their feet. The plants and grasses appear to be designed to bloom at different time of the year and there are several very helpful signs showing “what’s in bloom” at the present time. It’s definitely a softening element and we liked it a lot (of course – I got a chance to photograph lots of flowers!).
There are a number of other features of the park, but we saw the ones we were most interested in and the rest seem to be more targeted to local public use (e.g., a couple of performance spaces, an ice rink and an indoor cycling center with storage, repair and shower facilities for bike commuters). There are also four large solar energy-generating structures which we failed to appreciate thoroughly, since they were masquerading as elevators and stairs to the parking garage. Although the day was hardly the best, weather wise, with cloudy skies and threatening rain most of the day, the park was full of visitors, not all of whom looked like they came from out of town. It seems to be a destination for Chicagoans on their lunch hour, their day off or just looking for a space to enjoy the outdoors and interesting things to look at. We don’t see that too often in many parks (although Central Park in New York is one similarly used), particularly combined with important public art (whether you like it or not, it undeniably important in the art and architectural world and has won numerous awards) that has enhanced Chicago’s reputation as a city with great art and architecture.
And speaking of art and architecture, our final destination was the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my favorite art museums. The very traditional, solid and substantial Beaux-Arts style original building, with its iconic guardian lions in front, has been augmented by a very modern, airy and elegant addition opened just this past May. The addition was designed by the popular and very busy Renzo Piano, known for his tranquil and refined (some would say “safe” or “boring”) buildings. (Although we were astonished to find out – how had we missed knowing it? -- that he was the architect for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, one of my least favorite buildings, and anything but safe or boring or even tranquil and refined.) Again, I think we’ll reserve judgment on the Art Institute addition – it certainly is much different from the Gehry bandstand at the other end of the park, but then it serves a different purpose. The bandstand is a performance space, very public and open, designed to push sound outward into space. On the other hand, the Art Institute, which includes research and educational facilities as well as a great museum, is designed to provide a more private, inward-directed experience – to enjoy the art without distraction by the architecture. The outside has elegant proportions and lines, particularly when approached by the long pedestrian bridge from the edge of the Great Lawn, but the inside is perhaps even more the star. The spaces are open and nicely proportioned for exhibiting artwork and the light, filtered through translucent shades on the walls of windows, is perfect. I wish we could have seen it (and, for that matter, all of the park) at night, when I suspect the lighting makes it much more spectacular and interesting.
We walked along the pedestrian bridge, which enters the Museum on the third floor, where there is a very elegant (and expensive-looking) restaurant, which we avoided in favor of dinner later somewhere else. Outside the restaurant is an enclosed terrace looking out over the park, with the Gehry bandstand in the distance and the backdrop of skyscrapers, with several unique and interesting sculptural seats. Of course we had to try them out – while they were interesting, I don’t think they are designed for lounging or long-term resting!
We then went down to the entry floor for the museum, bought our tickets, obtained a map and proceeded to get lost about five times trying to find our way around to particular exhibits we had identified as priorities for our limited time there. The new wing houses the Contemporary Art collection, including a photography gallery (which unfortunately was closed for installation of a new exhibit) and sections devoted to architecture and design. We wandered through the 20th Century Decorative Art exhibit (furniture and functional pieces by, among many others, Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames) and then, after several wrong turns and discussions of which way to go, finally found our way to the 20th century European Art collection, where we spent most of our time. Jo wanted to visit her favorite painting, Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”, and Margaret spent extended time admiring the several Monet painting, especially the “Water Lilies” series. Fred and Ian also found things to admire and we all came away happy, tired and feeling we had just had an afternoon short-course in both art and architecture and the interplay between the two.
Since it was nearing the museum’s closing time – and we were all reaching the end of our tolerance for walking around and standing – we made an obligatory stop at the Museum Store (way too big and way too much stuff for a short visit but we found a couple of things we liked, nonetheless) and paid homage to the lions at the main entrance, after which we wandered to a nearby restaurant that had been recommended to the guys by a museum guard while the girls shopped in the store. In one of those strange coincidences that happen occasionally, Jo remembered having eaten in that very restaurant some 30 years ago with her mother – she even remembered what she had eaten! We all enjoyed our cocktails and dinner, following which Fred did his usual masterful job of chauffeuring us back to our campground. At this point we said good-bye to the Wandering Wishnies for a while, as we are moving on westward while they finish their volunteer job at the Richard Bong State Recreation Area and move on to other plans. We had a wonderful time visiting with them (as always, filled with food, drink, laughter and provocative discussions – not necessarily in that order) and thank them for their hospitality and stress-free (for us) driving service. We hope to meet up with them again later in the summer somewhere in the Dakotas.
By the way, I have been asked by someone who also knows the Wishnies and who knows Jo’s fondness for frozen custard, a Wisconsin staple, whether frozen custard played any part in our visit. Amazingly, not so much! We got some early in our visit, which we enjoyed, but managed to avoid it the rest of the week. I think we just weren’t near Jo’s favorite frozen custard providers or we were all exercising uncharacteristic restraint. Either way, I guess it’s another thing that will have to wait for our next visit to Wisconsin for fuller exploration (in the name of culinary research, of course). Our list of such things is getting long enough that it seems certain we’ll be back before too much time has passed.
Wednesday morning we hitched up and left our campground near Bristol and headed toward west-central Wisconsin where we have reservations through the 4th of July weekend at a campground near . . . well, not much, actually! We realized, though, that this is the first time since we left Phoenix in mid-May that we have been without an agenda, appointments or plans. Although we could have done without the interruption for, you know, that whole flooded loft thing, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our early trips to Monument Valley and environs, and especially our week at Taliesin and our “Week With the Wishnies”, we are looking forward to some down time to relax, sleep in when we want to, reassure the cats that we haven’t abandoned them and plan the next part of our summer. Right now we think we’ll spend some time in Minnesota and then move ever-westward into the Dakotas, after which -- we don’t know . . . .