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Pritzker Pavilion

The Pritzker Pavilion was designed by architect Frank Gehry.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

What’s That Building? Pritzker Pavilion

The open-air venue’s design replicates the sound of indoor concerts thanks to a trellis-like roof over the oval lawn.

When the Jay Pritzker Pavilion opened in mid-July 2004 as one of the cornerstones of Chicago’s bold new showcase, Millennium Park, many people struggled to describe the venue.

“It’s futuristic,” a 78-year-old doctor said.

“It’s like a spirit,” a minister visiting from Jamaica said.

“It’s kind of a flower,” said Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the pavilion.

Two decades later, Gehry’s cloudburst of stainless steel curves defies description. Is the design a headdress? Are they flames, like those that once destroyed downtown Chicago? Sails, like those out on the lake? A pop can that exploded?

Pritzker Pavilion

The view of the stage and downtown skyscrapers from the lawn of the Pritzker Pavilion.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Despite the debate over the shape, you’ll rarely hear the structure described as a lousy place for listening to music.

That’s because even though the Pritzker Pavilion is an open-air venue near streets with loud traffic, the venue’s sound system replicates the sound of an indoor concert. The trellis-like roof over the giant oval lawn isn’t just there to look good; it’s there to ensure all 11,000 people underneath — even those 625 feet from the performance at the far south end of the lawn — get good sound.

“You’re gonna hear,” Gehry said when he unveiled the model of his design in November 1999 at an event in the Art Institute, a block south. “It’s gonna be surround-sound.”

Pritzker Pavilion

The steel structures that support the trellis.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

The trellis and its support columns were designed with an integrated LARES system, a complex web of speakers and processors that essentially provide the same sound as if the trellis system were hard exterior walls. In 2019, the system got a $2.5 million update to keep it current with technology.

Of course, there’s much more to the Pritzker Pavilion than its sound system. There’s the Douglas fir wrapping the stage, a warm counterpart to all that metal. There’s the bowl of red seats near the stage, the play of colored lights on the stainless steel and the pathways from here to the park’s other major features, including Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture to the west, the Lurie Garden to the south and the snakelike bridge Gehry designed over Columbus Drive to the east.

Pritzker Pavilion

Rows of red stainless steel chairs sit between the stage and the lawn.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

But without Gehry’s careful attention to that sound system, you might be sitting at concerts on this lawn listening to music from speakers mounted on poles and enjoying the experience a lot less.

In the late 1990s, when former Mayor Richard M. Daley initially proposed roofing over past railroad land to create a major new park at the city’s front door, he enlisted architect Adrian Smith of the firm SOM to design it.

This year, in Chicago magazine’s oral history of the creation of the park, Smith recalled the original concept was to extend the historical Beaux Arts look of Grant Park and the Art Institute into the new space. Where the Pavilion is now, a March 1999 rendering shows a large lawn with two large circles intersecting at either end. At the north side, the circle contains a performance stage partially submerged into a berm.

But Smith and some of the civic leaders involved in raising private funds to supplement what the city could spend “thought it would be nice to have a more modern and contemporary vision,” Smith told Chicago magazine’s Mike Thomas.

It wasn’t long before that Beaux Arts image was gone, replaced by Gehry’s big, bold design. Jay Pritzker, who co-founded the Hyatt Hotels chain with his brother (and is the namesake of his nephew, Gov. JB Pritzker) died in January 1999. In April of that year his wife, Cindy, promised to donate $15 million for the music venue if she could bring in Gehry to design it. She had known the architect for a decade since he received architecture’s top honor, which Jay and Cindy Pritzker launched as the Pritzker Prize.

Pritzker Pavilion

Pritzker Pavilion as seen from above.

Dennis Rodkin for WBEZ

Gehry was the hottest architect of the moment. His best known building at the time Pritzker tapped him was the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. In the years he was working on the Pritzker Pavilion, he also created other fluid-looking structures such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and a fabulous mashup of shapes for an MIT academic building.

Smith said in the Chicago magazine piece that he thought Gehry was going to design only the proscenium, that stainless steel riot framing the stage, and that Gehry’s trellis came as a pleasant surprise.

When some Chicagoans complained Gehry’s design was too much and wouldn’t fit with the city’s majestic skyline of historical buildings, he promised, “I can’t wreck the city with one little dumb building” and that with the 21st century dawning, “it’s time to live in this century.”

The cost to build the structure grew to $60 million in part because the deck over the old railroad land, which was to become a parking garage, had to be made stronger to support the weight. Gehry’s structure shares backstage spaces with the Harris Theater for Music and Dance immediately to the north, and the below-ground bathrooms in the big concrete basin it stands on serve the whole park, not only the music space.

The $15 million Pritzker gift didn’t cover everything, obviously. As the cost was rising in 2001, Cindy Pritzker said, “we’re funding [Gehry’s] creativity, and the concrete is not part of it.”

Gehry’s team designed the sound like the inside of a building, but the Pritzker Pavilion is not a building. That was decreed by the park’s development team early on. They classified it as sculpture, to avoid running into conflict with the 1836 declaration the lakefront would remain “forever open, clear and free.”

Pritzker Pavilion

Intricate support beams help give the concert hall its unique shape and allow for it to be considered a sculpture, not a building.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

The Pritzker Pavilion is not the first music venue on the lakefront.

The park has had a series of them, beginning with a wooden bandshell built in 1915 near Michigan Avenue and Ida B. Wells Drive. Then, in 1931 the city built a rainbow-shaped bandshell for public concerts near Buckingham Fountain and in 1978 replaced it with a squarish modernist version, the Petrillo Music Shell east of the Art Institute.

Because of the “open, clear and free” rule, the Petrillo was designed to be taken down each winter. There was even a suggestion when the Pritzker Pavilion was underway to replace it so the Petrillo could be reassembled in various parks around the city. But it’s still standing where it was 20 years ago when the newcomer took over.

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Reset’s “What’s That Building?” contributor. Follow him @Dennis_Rodkin.

K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for Reset’s “What’s That Building?” Follow him @true_chicago.

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