For 13 years, the twin, glass-block towers of Crown Fountain have been a public face of Chicago in its most popular park, its colorful full-mug videos spitting water onto delighted waders below.
But 13 years is an eternity for video-screen technology, and it's an endurance challenge in materials-science terms, too.
So the interactive Millennium Park artwork, over the winter, has undergone a $3.7 million restoration. When the water gets turned on for the season Saturday, visitors will see new, brighter, more energy efficient LED screens depicting the work's signature imagery: faces of Chicagoans from across the city's cultural span who stare, then purse their lips to "spit" a jet of water, then smile.
What will be less apparent are the new pavers on the surface of the pool below or the hundreds of new glass bricks that have been installed to replace ones that have "crazed," a term of art signifying the devleopment of hairline fissures and a fogginess, like in an aged plastic car headlamp.
Crown Fountain, along with Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" sculpture, popularly known as "The Bean," is an iconic art installation in Millennium Park. The park itself has recently seen its annual visitor figures revised way upwards, thanks to new counting technology employed by the city Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Once thought to be 5 million annually, attendiance is actually somewhere north of 13 million, the department said,
At various points in recent months, park visitors have seen the fountain's towers shrouded like a Christo sculpture and the entirety of the fountain surrounded by blue fencing, adding an air of mystery to what has been a most welcoming artwork.
"The idea of doing restoration work was to ensure the artistic integrity of the piece," said Scott Stewart, executive director of the Millennium Park Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that was primary funder of the rehab project, along with the Crown family. "The quality of the projection was slowly degrading."
The screens behind the glass bricks on the north face of the south tower and the south face of the north tower were custom technology in their day. "Fast foward to today," Stewart said. "Those technologies are much more off-the-shelf, much improved, better image quality, better projection, more cost savings."
Guiding the hundreds of new LED screens stitched, digitally, into one, new sensors will allow them to adjust for sunny days, aiming to eliminate an occasional washed-out effect in the previous technology.
What won't change are the faces themselves "The faces that were part of the piece 13 years ago wil be the faces always. It makes it more timeless," said Mark Kelly, commissioner of DCASE, which helped organize the rehab project as part of its 2017 Year of Public Art intiatitve. "I've also been asked several times, 'What if we had some of Chicago's icons (on the screens)?' Again, it's just Chicagoans. It captures the demographics and diversity of the city. It's everyone and not 'someone.'"
Keeping the original, rotating bank of faces, which was developed in collaboration with video artists at the nearby School of the Art Institute, was also the wish of the artist, Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa. He visited Crown Fountain last year, just before it was turned off for the season, "to give his artist's nod to his understanding of what would be done," Stewart said.
The irony is that Crown Fountain as a kind of de facto water park, a place kids and not a few adults come to in bathing suits, was not Plensa's original vision.
"He envisioned the reflecting pool between the fountain's 50-foot-tall glass block towers as a dignified public space where visitors would gaze at the faces of 1,000 ordinary Chicagoans that appear on the tower's video screens," Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin wrote in a 2014 review of the park and its artwork at the 10-year mark.
"To Plensa's surprise, children took note of the water that spouted from those faces and began clustering beneath the face's mouths so they could get a public shower. Dressed in bathing suits and shrieking with delight, the kids endowed Plensa's imaginative synthesis of architecture and digital media with an unanticipated identity: a raucous urban water park."
On the inside, though, the towers are strictly utilitarian. A steel framework, like an adult Erector Set, helps support the glass walls and absorb the "wind load." On the roof of the north tower is a crow's nest where workers can come to adjust an assortment of meteorological devices. These measure wind and water, for instance, and lure lightning.
Down below the plaza, a nondescript tech room runs the show. Computers there deliver the faces to the screens, and they take in the wind and water data and adjust the strength of the spitting water -- what workers call "the gargoyle feature" -- accordingly.
"This is the brains of it all," said Neal Speers, general manager of Millennium Park and an employee of MB Real Estate, which manages the park facilities for the city. "This is where all the fun happens."
The glass blocks sweat on the inside, giving everything an odor of dampness. During a recent visit, blue tape was used to mark points of leakage. Workers on the outside, then, could see the tape and know to apply more caulking.
Each tower has 22,000 glass blocks, Speers said, "and I don't know how many countless miles of caulk. But there's a lot."
Nobody will be measuring, of course, come warmer weather, when the city's unlikely aquatic playground once again fills with screaming kids, frolicking beneath the new and improved video screens.
Kelly, of DCASE, calls it "one of the great interactive public art pieces, not just in the city but in the world,"
"You're just pulled into it," he said. "It's the elegance of the piece, the play of light, of video and water, and then the wonderful activity it offers to anyone who wants to enter the piece."
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