Architecture Fountation hosts exhibit on city's open spaces

  • By KRISTIN BROWN
  • Medill News Service
  • January 26, 2006 @ 3:29 PM
Chicago touts itself as a city in a garden -- a perfect blend of nature and metropolis. But away from the spacious, sprawling lakefront parks, back in the crowded inland neighborhoods, public space is a surprisingly rare commodity.

A new exhibit that explores the evolving conditions of public space in Chicago, from Millennium Park to incorporating aesthetics into building design to urban housing designs, opens Saturday at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.

According to Ned Cramer, curator of "OPEN: New Designs for Public Space", Chicago isn't quite the illustrious garden city it's made out to be, despite the fact its motto, urbs in horto, is Latin for city in a garden. Los Angeles and New York, he said, are both more populous than Chicago, yet Los Angeles has twice as much parkland as Chicago, while New York has three times as much.

"Many of those places you think of as being very dense are actually more open than Chicago," he said.

But the exhibit, developed by the Van Alen Institute of New York and given a Chicago twist by focusing on nine case studies that are either planned or already under way, showcases the innovative ways in which the city can open up urban-dense areas.

"We cherry-picked the ones that we thought were interesting," he said. "What we're seeing is the city having to be incredibly creative in the ways it identifies space in a city that's already built out."

Those examples, displayed by 300 photographs, models and architectural renderings, include the work done with Millennium Park; the innovative, new building for the Hyde Park Art Center; and the Chicago Housing Authority's $1.6 billion plan to convert housing projects, like Cabrini-Green on the North Side, into row houses and apartment buildings situated along tree-lined streets.

"It doesn't have to be just about parks and plazas," Cramer said. "It's looking at streetscapes, reworking street grids in huge areas of the city. You can radically transform entire neighborhoods in equally affecting, small, fine-grained ways."

With these examples, the architecture foundation hopes to draw public attention away from the lakefront, which is already a veritable urban oasis, and back inland to the crowded urban neighborhoods that could use a little breathing room.

"In terms of area and also accessibility, people who live on the lakefront are incredibly well-serviced," Cramer said.

People tend to dismiss the idea of finding public space in some of the city's denser neighborhoods, he said, pointing out that Daniel Burnham's Plan for Chicago, drafted almost a century ago, called for one acre of open space throughout the city for every 100 citizens. "That still guides these plans in spirit," Cramer said.

"We can work with existing conditions on sites that people might, at first glance, think are more trouble than they're worth," he said.

And lest those who view the exhibit are still not persuaded that parks, plazas and open spaces can be found among the city's rows of concrete and brick, the exhibit also features displays of 20 contemporary public art spaces around the world, to serve as further inspiration.

"It lets you see how communities all over the world are addressing social change, different economies, different spaces," Cramer said. "You can see brownfield redevelopments in Amsterdam, and new technologies in Boston. All of these variables are giving rise to really different and exciting spaces."

Cramer said he's hopeful that the exhibit will encourage innovative thinking about the way Chicagoeans view their city.

"All of the projects are very real," he said. "Nothing is simply visionary. They're all very much going to affect the way we think about Chicago."

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Open: New Designs for Public Space opens Jan. 28 and runs through May 7 at the ArchiCenter in the Santa Fe Building at 224 S. Michigan Ave. The exhibit is free.

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