The Z-Pod

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Yesterday afternoon I dropped by the Zaha Hadid-designed pavilion celebrating the centennial of the Burnham Plan for Chicago. After some construction delays, it finally opened to the public earlier this month. The structure is worth the wait, pretty much.

The standard criticism of Hadid is that her drawings are more interesting than her buildings, but that’s not the case here. It’s a fascinating structure from every angle, unlike, say, Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion nearby. In finished form it retains its gestural form, although it was actually designed on a computer.

IMG_1528 For all the flamboyance of its curves, the experience of walking through the pavilion is very controlled. The walkway through the pavilion is perhaps thirty feet, and rope barricades keep you on track. A security guard stands at the entrance to make sure you keep your feet off the white fabric skin. The rope and guards were added when people started leaving footprints. The Ben van Berkel pavillion, a few feet away, opened on time in June, but it’s already closed for repairs because of people stepping all over it as well. So, I’m zero for two trying to see the van Berkel pavilion from the inside.

The vulnerability of the van Berkel and Hadid pavilions have raised questions about the appropriateness of such delicate structures in a public space. The Hadid pavilion is held together by zippers. And the damage wasn’t caused by vandals. The footprints I saw were from little kids stepping on one of the few flat surfaces in the pavilion. It’s as if one kindergarten class went through and the place was a mess.

IMG_1531 Another problem is the seven-and-a-half minute video by London artist Thomas Gray, which can only be seen at night. Also past dark the Hadid pavilion dons dramatic orange, purple and green lighting. This is all very nice, I’m sure, but what a missed opportunity. Most visitors to Millennium Park are day trippers from the suburbs, and they usually head back home on the afternoon trains, just as the kids are getting cranky. When I was there for about ten minutes several families came through and the parents and children alike smiled in wonder. “This is so cool!” I heard more than once. It doesn’t get boring, either; one or two turns of the head and you’re out the other side. Luckily, there’s a web site if you actually want to know something about the Burnham Plan.

The Z-Pod is a great space, but a fleeting and enigmatic experience.

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