Designing a public space or building that is truly public is perhaps the greatest challenge of all for an architect or artist. According to the terms by which it is defined, a public space should anticipate virtually any demand that will be placed on it by a member of the public. At the same time, architecture is a tricky business. It is by nature a prescriptive discipline. It tells us where to sit, where not to sit, where to walk, or to keep on walking. The southern garden at the Art Institute strikes the balance fairly well: Its plan allows a variety of activity. Or inactivity. At the very least, a well-planned public space should grant a slight and temporary reprieve from the nearly all-encompassing proscriptions we face daily.
The recent opening of Pritzker Park was in no way as exciting or as trumped-up as the opening of what it was meant to set off. To little fanfare, the park more or less simply appeared across the street from the Harold Washington Library Center. As we learn from reading the bronze plaques that greet the visitor, Pritzker Park is "intended to complement" the new library. Both signal a beginning: the South Loop is to be given back to the public. The public will go to the library, visit the park, eventually even go shopping in what is now the nearly vacant and forbidding stretch of State below Van Buren. Those who never bothered with the South Loop may discover it in part as a result of these two new projects. Yet therein lies a paradox. Built for the public, these structures have litttle patience for the diversity of the public that they are meant to serve.
A brief walk through the library bears some of this out. Not just a library, this is a library center. In addition to reading rooms, there are rooms for lectures and discussions and blues concerts. There are many ways to occupy yourself in our new public library, and there is just one rule: you must occupy yourself when there. I have never seen an employee of the library insisting on it, but all the people I see, even those who appear to be jobless or homeless, just passing the time, do have something to read in front of them. Some are grouped at tables, staring straight ahead, books open but no pages turning. What seems clear is that somehow (and the mechanism is probably as unimportant as it is unclear) users of the library have learned that they must use it, or at least appear to. There's nothing wrong with doing nothing in private. It's only in public, when doing nothing becomes loitering, that inactivity is a problem.
Unfortunately the designers of Pritzker Park appear to disapprove of unstructured activity too. At first glance the park is quite lovely. Set below the street in the southeast corner of the block just north of the library, its expanse of grass sweeps half a block up State and half a block over on Van Buren. A stone path rambles vaguely southward from the north end to the southwest corner. Trees have been planted; flowers too. But the visitor looking to stop awhile will feel some unease. The low black granite wall forming the hypotenuse of the southeast corner's triangle is off-limits for sitting--we are informed of this by the wall itself and by the plaques at the small street-level observation platform in the corner. Though the lighting fixtures beside the path have sturdy flat tops, it seems reasonably clear that they are not meant to be sat upon either. Sitting on one of them would probably mean tripping someone who tried to pass your outstretched legs. I did see one person sitting on a lamp talking to a friend who was sitting on the grass. Most of the people who were sitting sat on the grass. I guess that would be OK if the ground wasn't wet.
Now just because there is no obvious place to sit does not mean that there is no place to sit at all. In addition to a sandbox, there is a circular structure at each end of the central path. According to the plaques these are "council rings," "symbols of community spirit and focal points for quieter activities, such as storytelling." This is where we are meant to sit.
Sitting facing the center, partaking of "community," is about the only option. Beds of flowers around the outside of the rings make facing outward, away from the community, somewhat awkward. Even if you don't mean to fulfill the council rings' intentions, facing forward makes it look as if you do. Not only is sitting alone here difficult, it must be seen as an act of transgression.
The park's combination of inadequate seating and specifically regulated seating (which needs to be explained in writing) is as troubling as the library's unwritten rule about keeping busy. We can all appear to be civic-minded, cooperative members of society, just as we can all appear to be readers. The park is a place you can walk through or a place you can linger, as long as you follow the rules.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.