Considering how to better connect Chicago’s “Cultural Mile”

Chicago Tribune arts critic Chris Jones suggests Chicago’s “cultural mile” is not connected well:

Like many such districts, congressional and otherwise, the Chicago Cultural Mile is an inherently artificial entity — Chicago self-evidently has many a cultural mile — designed to promote specific business and nonprofit interests and, of course, designed not to impinge on the jurisdiction of others. The reason for the weird turns is to link such big lakefront museums as the Field Museum of Natural History in the “mile” along with such Michigan Avenue anchors as the Art Institute, the Spertus center and Millennium Park. John W. McCarter Jr., the former president of the Field, joined the board of the nonprofit Chicago Cultural Mile Association last week along with Frank P. Novel of Metropolitan Capital Bank & Trust. The association, a hitherto snoozey but apparently growing nonprofit, also announced the hiring of its first full-time executive director, Sharene Shariatzadeh.

Let’s stipulate that the weird trajectory of the Chicago Cultural Mile is indicative of a problem in cultural Chicago, which McCarter knows as well as anyone: the continued lack of a graceful, logical curve (be it path, rail or road) to get visitors from Michigan Avenue to the steps of the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium in a way that does not confound the visitors. Some variation of a graceful curve — as distinct from a counter-intuitive, traffic-dodging series of right-angled turns on streets with a surfeit of concrete — is needed. There are many reasons for the current financial duress at the Field, but one under-acknowledged factor is the renovation of Soldier Field, which made the museum seem more of its own island, far more distant, far harder to reach, if only in people’s heads.

But that’s not a reason for the Cultural Mile to leave Michigan Avenue.

Motor Row, its natural destination, sits right next to the McCormick Place convention center, a crucial economic generator that was built without an obvious emotional link to its city — a disdain for urban context that extracts a heavy price. Fixing up Motor Row is the best way to change that. As the Tribune reported last fall, things are already happening: The Seattle-based food-circus hybrid known as Teatro ZinZanni is eyeing the ‘hood for its long-anticipated Chicago branch. The band Cheap Trick is planning a venue and museum. There is talk of hotels and restaurants. A nearby stop on the Green Line is coming.

Jones is suggesting there are three major issues at stake here:

1. The first issue is that there is not a coherent physical connection between these spaces. They exist in proximity to each other but there is not public space that would encourage visitors to travel between them. This is an urban planning issue.

2. The second issue is marketing and selling this stretch as a coherent grouping. Even without a good layout, how many visitors to Chicago know this grouping exists? While the northern end of Michigan Avenue, north of the Chicago River, is well known and visited, this area could use more promotion.

3. A third concern is that this cultural mile could be still expanded to include interesting existing places. As Jones notes, McCormick Place doesn’t really interact with the nearby area even as it attracts thousands of visitors so a nearby site that would attract visitors could be very lucrative and useful.

As someone who has visited this stretch numerous times, I would add another caveat. To get from Michigan Avenue to the museum campus (Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, and Adler Planetarium), the most direct route is to cut southeast from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street through Millennium Park and Grant Park and over to Lake Michigan. This route takes advantage of one of Chicago’s great features: its parks along the lake. However, cutting through the park, getting away from the traffic, and enjoying the nature and different energy of the parks means that I miss out on what is going on along Michigan Avenue. If the city wants more people to follow Michigan Avenue south, does this necessarily mean diverting people away from the parks?

What the future Navy Pier might look like

Navy Pier is in for a redesign and here are quick summaries of the redesign plans from the five competitors:

•AECOM/BIG — The Crystal Gardens would become a “vertical urban farm” to supply produce to restaurants at the pier. A grand staircase would sweep over a proposed addition to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and offer uninterrupted skyline views. On the pier’s far east end, a tiered platform would create a “lifted corner” that would rise above the Dock Street promenade, providing another lookout. A tier on the other corner would descend directly to the water.

•Davis Brody Bond/Aedas/Martha Schwartz Partners — A series of boardwalklike extensions on the pier’s southern edge would include a variety of features, among them slips for tour boats, an outdoor theater, fishing areas and a beach. A “flyover” ramp would connect Pier Park to the boardwalks. A gondola would carry visitors to the pier from Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.

•!melk/HOK/UrbanLab — Curved platforms would extend over the pier’s southern edge, providing lookout points. Boardwalks at the pier’s eastern end would let visitors get closer to the lake; below the platforms, and visible to the visitors, would be underwater “fish resorts” where fish would congregate. The towering structure called the Glacier would rise out of the lake off the pier’s eastern end.

•James Corner Field Operations — Undulating steps would join Pier Park with the Dock Street promenade. The plan also suggests turning the interior of the Crystal Gardens into a striking display of hanging gardens and putting oval-shaped cabs on the nearby Ferris wheel. A swimming pool with a sand beach would run along the pier’s southeast corner at lake level. A stepped amphitheater would lead down to the eastern end of the pier, where a platform would extend into the lake.

•Xavier Vendrell Studio/Grimshaw Architects — Circular arrangements of trees and plants would be installed to soften Pier Park. They would enliven the South Dock with pocket parks, terraces and kiosks. A wedge-shaped “horizon walk” platform would extend outward and upward from the pier’s east end, creating another vantage point to gaze over Lake Michigan and providing another reason for people to walk the entire length of the pier.

The images give you some ideas of the interesting ideas in play here. Check out “The Glacier” that would jut out of the water at the east end, various ways of expanding into the walkways into the lake, and a raised eastern corner paired with a depressed eastern corner (image 6 and 10/12 and 13, respectively, in this gallery). The idea that looks the most interesting to me: images 14 and 15 show a grand staircase that would really transform the “roof” of the structure.

At the same time, I can’t imagine that the City will allow anything too crazy, particularly something that might mar the lake views. After saving Grant Park from major changes with the proposed move of the Children’s Museum, I think Chicago will play it relatively safe while trying to offer more consistent recreational opportunities along the pier. I imagine there is more room to play with the walkways/promenade along the lake though this still has to appeal to a broad swath of residents and tourists. Perhaps the best way to do this is to make the promenade greener while also better utilizing the existing structures.

I do like the fact that this process has been made public. While some of these ideas are quite unique, it gives the public a larger vision about public spaces and what is possible. We could benefit from thinking bigger about what these types of public spaces could be like and how we could all benefit.

The mystery church that opens to Buckingham Fountain in “Happy Endings”

After seeing the end of Modern Family, I saw the opening scene to ABC’s new show Happy Endings. As the bride left the groom at the altar and ran out of the church, we were treated to a shot of Chicago outside the church’s front door. There was only one problem: right outside the church’s door was Buckingham Fountain. Where exactly is this church?

The New York Times review of the show says the show is “Set in Chicago — by which I mean a soundstage somewhere like Burbank, Calif., that looks like New York but is called Chicago…” While I know movies and TV shows have a long history of such wrong shots (and establishing shots), this one seems just plain odd and obvious.