The July 16 opening of Millennium Park brought Chicago the most global press attention since Steve Bartman, and a lot less embarrassment. A bit too eager to join the celebration, the local media went light on analysis, and key questions were barely touched on. What can the park’s creation teach us? Can it energize the architectural revival here? Or is it a last hurrah as standards continue to nose-dive?

Perhaps a good place to begin is by debunking a couple of the giddier notions that gained circulation during the inebriation. The most glaring is the PR mantra that it doesn’t matter that the park was four years behind schedule or that its cost more than tripled, to $475 million. In the long run, we’re told, people will remember only how good it is. Yes, as John Maynard Keynes once put it, and in the long run we are all dead.

It’s hard to shake the impression that the Daley administration is using the park’s success to cover its failings. “You guys are so lucky to have him as mayor,” Frank Gehry told a capacity crowd at a symposium in the Art Institute’s Rubloff Auditorium on July 23. His effusiveness was understandable, since he usually saw Daley on his best behavior.

Though it finished in a blaze of glory, Millennium Park needs to be remembered as an object lesson in how not to do such a project. When the mayor announced in March 1998 what was then called Lakefront Gardens, it was basically a $66 million parking garage built over the old Illinois Central railroad tracks and topped with a fairly simple park that included a new outdoor concert space. Daley said that it would all be finished by the summer of 2000 and that the $150 million cost, minus $30 million to be raised from private donors, would be covered by revenues from the new garage.

The scripted excuse at July’s festivities was that the cost exploded because things were added as the project went along. Reasonable people could be pardoned for doubting the wisdom of trying to tackle so big a project in a little over two years, but of course no one says no to Richard M. Daley. As an August 2001 Tribune story revealed, the rush to complete the park by his deadline resulted in construction starting before final drawings were complete. The early work had an aura of frenzied improvisation, as the components of the park changed almost daily. The caissons originally built to support the foundation proved inadequate and had to be strengthened. When the Gehry band shell was added to the mix, another 17 caissons had to be put in to support its weight. Adding the Harris Theater for Music and Dance eliminated 250 parking spots in the garage along with their future revenue. Many of the garage columns cracked and had to be repaired. A big storm in 2002 flooded the theater and the garage. The original contractor was fired and filed a $47 million lawsuit, which the city is still fighting; two other contractors have also filed suit and are seeking $16 million in compensation for the extra expense they claim to have incurred dealing with the project’s myriad design changes.

By the time the garage opened, its cost had soared to almost $100 million. Worse, the revenue it produced fell far short of the city’s projections–well below the amount required to make payments on the bonds that had funded construction. To make up the difference, the city had to kick in over $3 million at the beginning of 2002 (a complicated financial deal in late 2002 generated $12.5 million toward the cost). The Daley administration backpedaled, claiming that “no neighborhood property taxes” were being used to fund construction.

In the end the city’s share of the park’s cost would soar to $270 million, $95 million of which was diverted from the Central Loop tax increment financing district. TIFs shift a portion of property taxes from general revenues to special funds designed to spur development in “blighted” areas, which is what the city declared the Loop to be in 1984 when it set up the Central Loop TIF. The money it collected went to the demalling of State Street, the restoration of the Oriental, Palace, and Goodman theaters, and the bailout of Block 37–last year the city spent $32.5 million to repurchase the still-vacant Block 37 land that it had sold to a developer in 1989 for $12.5 million. Somehow the city found a way to tap the TIF for Millennium Park even though the park isn’t even in the TIF district.

TIF money is city tax revenue, and blowing off questions about the cost overruns at Millennium Park by saying neighborhood tax revenue wasn’t touched is playing a cynical shell game. As reported in July by Crain’s Chicago Business, the city’s 135 TIF districts now siphon off the equivalent of 16 percent of the city’s tax base, and they’re sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent funds. The city, schools, and CTA are all running headlong into the red–the city’s 2005 budget is projected to include a $220 million deficit and the $95 million in TIF funds that covered the overruns at Millennium Park could have gone a long way toward plugging that gap. The park’s journey from self-sustaining asset to giant sucking machine can’t be ignored.

A second doubtful notion is that Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion is a great building. If you want to see a truly great Gehry work, visit the Disney Concert Hall, which would have been astonishing even if it had been surfaced, as initially conceived, in limestone rather than the same shimmering stainless steel as the Pritzker band shell. The Disney’s billowing shapes aren’t mere caprice; they reflect the form of the concert hall and other spaces within the complex. Chicago seemed less interested in Gehry the great architectural thinker than in Gehry the producer of the Bilbao effect–of a swooping, shiny bauble guaranteed to become an instant branding device that could be inscribed on key chains, T-shirts, and other tchotchkes. Millennium Park’s signature image is clearly the pavilion’s gigantic stainless steel proscenium, which, no matter how pretty we may find it or how well it photographs, is still basically a $20 million false front. The pavilion has even been officially declared sculpture to circumvent Park District height limitations on structures in the park.

These complaints aside, Millennium Park is an artistic triumph. Behind and in front of the pavilion Gehry makes some dazzling connections with Chicago architecture’s traditional celebration of structure. He deliberately left the bracing on the back of the proscenium exposed–a dramatic exposition on how the thing’s held up. “Some people have objected to the back side,” says Gehry partner Craig Webb, “but we always imagined it to be a structure with a face and a back side, and the pipe and structure that support the proscenium relate in a way back to the trellis.”

That trellis, created to hold the pavilion’s lawn speakers, is the lightest of structures–“almost nothing,” in the words Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used to describe his ideal in architecture. It creates the sense of a room that unites listeners spatially just as the sound distributed through the speakers unites them aurally–all the way to the back of the lawn, nearly 600 feet from the stage. And the trellis both counterpoints and frames the wall of historic skyscrapers lining Michigan Avenue on the park’s periphery, breaking the view into a mosaic that makes it easier to appreciate the individual buildings. “I didn’t expect that,” said Gehry at the symposium. “That was a little bonus.”

Millennium Park both engages traditional urban ideas and inverts them in ways that are startlingly original. Just as Gehry’s work blurs the line between architecture and sculpture, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain address sculpture in a very architectural way–they’re not small accents in a large garden but environments that encompass viewers much as spaces in a building do.

Both sculptors have expressed impatience with traditional static art and suggested that in today’s information-dense culture it’s no longer sufficient for art to be a passive object. Talking at the symposium of the classic sculptures he’s encountered on walks through Rome, Plensa said, “Unfortunately they carved the figures in stone, and for 500 years they have exactly the same position. I think today technology allows us to go a little bit farther.” Kapoor, who was also at the symposium, said, “The question I’m trying to address is about space, about the nature of the lack of interaction with the public.” The reflections of viewers and their surroundings in the fun-house-mirror surfaces of Cloud Gate make them part of the work and keep it in a state of constant change, just as the Crown Fountain does when it invites the public to wade in its quarter-inch skin of water or stand beneath the spray from the lips of the giant faces projected on the towers’ LED screens.

Millennium Park isn’t your father’s idyllic urban playground–it’s as unsettled and enigmatic as the city itself. That we got it at all in the current economic environment–where the market and private interests have been elevated to the status of religion, while the public realm is subject to constant assault–is no small miracle. That it represents a robust revival of private philanthropy in support of the civic commons is perhaps its greatest triumph, though even more astonishing is that Mayor Daley allowed himself to be persuaded to transform the park from its original beaux arts design to one that boldly engages modern artistic and architectural thought at the highest levels.

Bold visions are most often stuffed in the back of a desk drawer. The only way to escape that fate is to have the support of powerful people immune to the pressure to compromise and disinclined to take no for an answer. Millennium Park had four: Mayor Daley of course, but also Cindy Pritzker, who was instrumental in bringing Gehry to Chicago; Edward Uhlir, the soft-spoken but doggedly determined Park District project manager who came on board in September 1998 to build a parking garage with a bit of greenery on top and held on for dear life as the project became increasingly ambitious; and John Bryan, former president and CEO of the Sara Lee Corporation.

Bryan may have been the most important player. He was the guy who raised the $205 million in private contributions that funded the proscenium, the trellis, the bridge, the sculptures, the Lurie Garden, the Harris Theater–all of the elements that have made the park such a critical and public success. The park is the second of two recent architectural successes to bear Bryan’s fingerprints. Last September, when Mies’s Farnsworth House was put up for auction at Sotheby’s, he was critical in raising funds to buy it and keep it open to the public, and his personal last-minute big-bucks infusion sealed the winning bid. By then he’d already helped persuade more than 80 individuals to kick in at least $1 million each for Millennium Park. As each new element popped up, he went back to the well and raised the additional funds.

The remarkable thing is that all this money went to a public facility. This isn’t Soldier Field, a $655 million isolated citadel that benefits primarily an elite group of season-ticket holders. Millennium Park is in the heart of the city–easily accessible, open to all, and for the most part free. According to Edward Uhlir, nearly 500,000 people checked out the park in the opening week.

You can’t miss the increased energy along Michigan Avenue, but beyond the immediate neighborhood the picture becomes cloudier. In June the American Institute of Architects held its first convention in the city in over a decade, spotlighting a bumper crop of talented young Chicago architects as well as several new high-profile buildings that are as good as anything ever built here. But the hard reality is that if the view through the Gehry trellis toward Michigan Avenue were not of historic skyscrapers but of the typical big-ticket buildings now being built in the city’s center, we wouldn’t feel elated. We’d be ashamed.

The architects and critics extolling Chicago’s architectural renaissance can do so only because they’re ignoring the architectural mess that’s overwhelming downtown. Walk the streets of River North or the West Loop and you’ll find that for every new interesting building there are at least 30 concrete towers all but devoid of architectural merit. Great buildings are always the exception, but Chicago has historically been revered around the world as an architectural showcase because good design ran deep. One could argue that in the wall of buildings lining Michigan Avenue that was landmarked two years ago the Auditorium is the only truly world-class landmark–but there isn’t a real stinker in the 12 blocks.

In the 1880s and ’90s most prominent Chicago structures were built with a sharp eye on costs, yet the quality of design was still so high that the influence of the Chicago school of architecture stretched around the globe. The same impulses drove the steel-and-glass construction here in the 50s and 60s, resulting in a second Chicago school that redefined modern architecture in America. Architecture has always been driven by the market, but in recent decades quality has come to be seen as not just economically unproductive but unnecessary.

Conspicuously absent from the list of Millennium Park’s $1 million donors are current developers such as James Loewenberg, who’s been spectacularly successful at creating housing that expands the residential population of Chicago’s downtown while lowering the city’s architectural IQ. He’s been successful because he understands the Wal-Mart world we live in–where the primary impulse is to sell and consume as much as possible as efficiently as possible, where we increasingly pass up traditional malls on our way to bare-bones warehouse stores, isolated in seas of asphalt, that carry everything from skids of toilet paper to big-screen plasma TVs. He’s a master at transferring this dynamic to real estate–picking a good location, providing the floor plans and amenities people want, and not worrying about how ugly the exterior is. He’s been very forthright about saying his buyers aren’t interested in paying extra money to have their building look good; after all, they don’t have to look at it once they’re inside.

Loewenberg has set the standard most local developers now descend to, though there are exceptions, including W. Harris “Bill” Smith (Erie on the Park) and Colin Kihnke (Contemporaine). It’s hard to figure out how to stop this rush to the bottom. The example of Millennium Park is unlikely to change Loewenberg or any of his peers into a Herbert Greenwald, the visionary 50s developer who gave Mies his first chance to build landmarks such as the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments.

Millennium Park’s best shot at improving the quality of Chicago architecture may be through its great patron, Mayor Daley. His first impulse may still be to make Chicago more like beaux arts Paris, but his long, hands-on involvement in making Millennium Park a reality, and the resulting groundswell of popular support and acclaim, may have shown him the value of reasserting Chicago’s place in defining the architecture of our time.

Last year Daley gave the Sun-Times the front-page headline quote “No more bad buildings!” But to make that command a reality he has to find a way to encourage the market to drop its current fixation on the cheap and the generic, even if it’s just jawboning by his administration. Jawboning can have a big impact. It was what President Kennedy did when he talked the big steel companies out of making inflationary price increases in the 60s. It was what Mayor Daley’s father did when he reinvigorated the Loop, hiring modernist master Jacques Brownson as the architect for what is now the Daley Center and helping Mies get the job of designing the Federal Center at Jackson and Dearborn–setting the stage for a string of landmark buildings, including Myron Goldsmith’s Brunswick Building and Perkins & Will’s First National Bank. With few exceptions, the talented young local architects everyone’s talking about haven’t been allowed anywhere near a major downtown project. Maybe the mayor can talk someone into giving them a chance.

For some years now the city has seemed happy just to get all those new buildings on the tax rolls–and willing to look the other way if the resulting towers pollute the skyline or their podium parking garages transform streets into dead canyons. If great Chicago architecture is ever to become more than an occasional surprise, the city needs to demand a change.

New podium buildings–towers above parking garages that are built to the lot line–are being proposed for the Streeterville area. Will the city allow them to be the usual dreck, or will it choose to work closely with the developers to persuade them to help restore Chicago’s commitment to good architecture? If the success of Millennium Park doesn’t persuade the city and its developers that we can do a lot better, those few acres become little more than the architectural equivalent of a wild-game preserve–a place where wonderful things are protected because they can no longer survive in the real world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy, Bill Stamets.