What Makes A Great Urban Park?

Yesterday we decided to spend some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the premier art museums in the United States and home to pieces like American Gothic, Nighthawks, and a vast collection of impressionism and 20th century artwork. Because it was on our way, we walked through Millennium Park, which has to be one of the finest urban parks in the world. Chicago definitely got this one right.

As we walked through Millennium Park, I thought about what makes a great urban park. Of course, you want to have some green space, like the lovely garden area shown in the photo above. And you also want to include some interesting large-space artwork, like the gleaming reflective sculpture nicknamed “the Bean” that is shown in the first photo of this post. It draws people like a magnet, as they search to find themselves on the rounded, mirror-like surface, and probably has become, over the years, one of the most photographed objects in the city’s history.

One of the big questions for urban park planners has to be deciding how to treat the surrounding city. Do you plant a lot of big trees, to block out the skyscrapers as best you can and try to create a quiet, green space, or do you focus instead on creating vistas that frame the towering spires in interesting ways? The Millennium Park designers took the second approach, and I think it was a wise decision. Everywhere you look–even in the reflection in the Bean–you can see Chicago’s skyscrapers. And why not? This is some of the best urban architecture in the world, and it makes sense to show it off. But I appreciate the little touches that the planners have created, like the wooden walkway through the garden area, shown above, and careful thinking that the bridge shown in the photos below.

The BP pedestrian bridge, which links two parts of Millennium Park, is a good example of how creativity and attention to detail can add so much to a park. The designers needed a bridge to allow park visitors to easily cross over a highway. They could have made a simple overpass, but instead they created a shimmering, serpentine structure that winds around and makes you forget that you are on a bridge at all. You walk along, dazzled by the glint of sunlight on the sides of the walkway and gaping at the skyline and surrounding buildings, and before you know it you’ve reached the other side and have a hankering to walk back over the bridge again, just for the heck of it, because crossing it in the first place was so cool.

I’m confident that most of the tourists who visit Millennium Park end up leaving with the thought that they wish that their hometowns had a place like it. What better testament is there for a successful urban park?

Harbor Portraits

Last night we took a sunset cruise around Charleston’s harbor. It was a warm, pleasant evening with lots of clouds in the sky, but happily the rain held off and we were able to enjoy a light breeze and the scenery. The cloud banks prevented us from actually seeing the sun drop below the horizon, and instead we were treated to the colorful impact of the dying sunlight on the many clouds. As we sailed along it was like traveling through an ever-changing modern art painting. Pretty spectacular!

Chalk, And A Blank Slate

We have a piece of slate and a stand in our kitchen, and plenty of chalk to go around. It makes for an irresistible combination that lures everyone to try their hand at a little calligraphy.

Of course, chalk reminds me of elementary school and standing at towering, wall-to-wall chalkboards, being handed that piece of chalk, and being instructed by Mrs. Haddad, my third-grade teacher, to solve a math problem or spell Mississippi or make the perfect cursive capital E, like the one on the cardboard example thumbtacked above the board. In those days, when you were handed a piece of chalk, the pressure was on, and if you didn’t perform your sorry effort would be swept away by a dusty eraser as you went slinking back to your desk.

These days, the piece of chalk isn’t quite as intimidating. In fact, it’s kind of fun to try your hand at a little printing that might meet Mrs. Haddad’s exacting standards. And we welcome the forgiveness inherent in erasure, which gives us a chance to fix those little mistakes.

Over The Susquehanna

We’re in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for a wedding. Lewisburg is the home to Bucknell and is located along the west branch of the Susquehanna River. The Susquehanna is the longest river in the eastern United States and runs from a lake in New York through Pennsylvania and down to the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a moist, misty morning, and my view of the river as shown above reminded me of the Hudson River school of landscape painting. As it passes Lewisburg, the Sus is very wide and calm. It was quite a drop from the bridge to the surface of the water, though so I steered toward the inside lane as I walked across.

Art Underfoot

A construction crew has been working on one of the access ramps to the underground garage under the Ohio Statehouse. I’m not sure exactly what they are doing, but it sure looks cool.

First they put down what looked exactly like yellow Legos, then they placed bright red wires over the yellow blocks. The combination was striking when I walked past yesterday morning, and produced what really looked like a modern art installation. It seems like a shame to cover it up with concrete.

Failing The Pie Test

The Washington Post recently ran a thought-provoking piece on its opinion pages about pie. That’s right, pie — the warm, flaky, delectable dessert concoction. The writer’s point is that America, which apparently invented pie, is letting its salutary contribution to the dessert realm wither away, because Americans are forgetting how to make a good pie crust.

The piece, while alarmist in tone, has a point. The crust of a pie is as important to the whole pie experience as a crisp, delicately flavored, non-doughy crust is to a fine pizza–which makes sense because it is a pizza pie, after all. As the writer notes, more and more Americans are buying store-bought crusts that aren’t up to snuff, and in her experience even professional artisanal bakeries aren’t producing the light and flaky pie crusts that her mother and grandmother routinely pulled from the oven during her childhood.

The notion that America may be losing its collective pie crust know-how is a very disturbing thought and, for those of us who have personally experienced piece crust artistry, cruel news, indeed. My grandmother made an excellent pie crust, and the Harbor Cafe here in Stonington produces some excellent graham cracker crusts to go with its famous banana cream pie. But there is no doubt that the knack of making a great crust is the kind of thing that could be lost forever if not carefully handed down from generation to generation or, alternatively, reinvigorated by a new generation focused on preserving this important American institution.

I like baking, but I’ve always limited myself to cookies. I have considered baking a good pie crust to be akin to climbing Mount Everest. I’m taking the Post piece as a kind of challenge, however. I like pie–apple pie, like the kind shown in the photo above, is my favorite–and I’m not willing to stand idly by and watch pie die. When the winter rolls around, and it’s prime baking season, I’m going to take a crack at some pie baking, and hope that some of that pie artistry was passed down in the family genes.

Austin’s Architecture

I’ve been meaning to write one last thing about our recent trip to Austin. If you’re interested in architecture, Austin is a must-visit destination. With the city growing like crazy, and new buildings being constructed everywhere you look, Austin allows a kind of real-time look at the direction of modern architecture.

So, what do you see in Austin’s new buildings? Lots of geometry, for the most part, and not much ornamentation. The ruffles and flourishes that you notice in older buildings—sometimes beautiful, sometimes garish, but almost always interesting—are long gone. The new buildings are sleek and gleaming, and in many instances the simple rectangle and cube designs that maximize the space under roof reign supreme.

But that doesn’t mean the architects don’t try to come up with visually interesting buildings. The Google headquarters building that is under construction and shown in the first photograph in this post is enormous, occupying an entire city block, but the design includes a graceful curve and, at the front of the building not visible in the picture, a unique stacking of floors that makes it look like the observer is peeking into the innards of the building. The design of the top of the building in the photograph immediately above tries to depart from the standard flat roof. And other buildings, like the eye-catching “Jenga” building shown in the bottom photograph in this post, make a statement by playing off the cube and rectangle look in an arresting way.

In the ancient architectural battle of form against function, functionality seems to be winning, but the architects look to be doing their best to add a dollop of flash and flair and inject some art into the architecture. And one other thing is clear: if you live or work in one of Austin’s new buildings, you are going to get lots of natural light, because windows—lots and lots of windows—are a dominant feature. That’s a good thing too, because it shows that today’s architects are concerned about the experience of the people inside the building as the people like me gawking at the skyscrapers from the outside.

Amidst The Mist

Fog is a curious phenomenon. For one thing, sounds seem to carry differently when Stonington is socked in by a heavy fog, as it is this morning. The growling sounds of the lobster boats heading out to sea seem to be amplified by the moisture in the air, so that it sounds as if the boats are very close by when it is clear they aren’t. And familiar scenes look different, too.

But the visual effects of fog can also be surprising, and varying. Sometimes it renders things, like the boats at anchor above, blurry and indistinct, like a grey aquatic dreamscape. In other places the fog acts as a kind of backdrop that frames the structures in the foreground, giving them a different cast. The old dock and green boathouse below, located next to the post office, are a good example of this effect. I’d never paid much attention to them before, but amidst the mist they look spindly and delicate and haunting.

Fog makes the morning walk more interesting for me, but makes the morning work more treacherous for the lobstermen.

Shades Of Gray

We had an interesting sunrise this morning. The sky was cloud-covered, but the clouds were thin enough to allow a fair amount of sunlight to illuminate the harbor. The diffuse sunlight left the water looking like hammered metal and cast all of the boats resting at anchor into shadow, thereby creating a landscape that, with a battleship gray dock in the foreground, covered pretty much every shade of gray in the gray rainbow–from pewter to slate, lead, flint, charcoal, dove, and every other shade of gray you can imagine.

It was a beautiful scene as I stood there at the edge of the expansive dock in the early morning stillness and quietly took in all of the awesome, overwhelming grayness. I like this picture of the scene very much, but even so it doesn’t fully capture the live moment.

Buoyish Charm

Every where you turn in Stonington, you’re likely to see lobster buoys—the colorful plastic bobbers that float on the surface of the water and mark where a lobster trap can be found on the ocean floor below. The lobster buoys have different color combinations so the lobster captains can easily identify their traps as they chug alongside in their boats to haul them up.

When the buoys aren’t in the water, though, what should you do with them? Some people pile them in colorful heaps on their property. Others, like this homeowner, make more creative use of the buoys. Why have a plain old chain-link fence when you can have an explosion of color to mark your your property line?

For The Artists Out There

We’re lucky to have some talented artists as friends, and I am flattered that they have liked some of my Stonington photos enough to use them as the basis for paintings.

It’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday in Stonington today, with perfect conditions for some photography of the scenes around town. Above is a photo looking east form a spot next to the mailboat dock, and below is a shot of downtown Stonington, and a big patch of floating algae, from the public dock next to the Harbor View grocery store. They both have some interesting colors and lots of different shades of blue.

I’ll keep taking the pictures as long as someone else does the painting!

The Canvas Above

I notice the sky a lot more when I am up here in Stonington than I do in Columbus. I think that is because, when you are down by the harbor, the sky seems so huge and wide and sweeping, with a horizon that is absurdly far away. The sky is not fenced in and limited by trees, houses, and buildings, like it is in Columbus or any other city.

The unfettered sky seems like a gigantic artist’s canvas, where the wind and sun shape and color the clouds into brushstrokes on the blue background and illuminate the island masses below. And when a stray seagull wheels into the frame and soars past, as in the picture above, it’s like Mother Nature generously shared her artwork just with me.

A New Blue

As a kid, I figured that the spectrum of colors was pretty much fixed, defined by the different hues in the rainbow, and in the natural world, and in the Crayola 64 collection of crayons with the crayon sharpener built into the back of the box where the crayon your kid sister was trying to sharpen broke off and you could never use the sharpener again.

Then, as I grew older, I realized that new colors were being developed virtually every day, primarily for the purpose of requiring mystified husbands to go into paint stores and try to distinguish between tiny gradations shown on tiny paint sample squares, when their wives were trying to figure out which color to paint the dining room. I question, for example, whether “sea foam” was actually a color until some paint mixologist at Sherwin Williams or Benjamin Moore chuckled with evil glee and decided that tantalizing people with “sea foam” would make the home redecoration choices even more difficult.

But blue colors are different. Shades of blue tend to fade easily, and often contain toxic elements. That’s why it’s noteworthy that recently, for the first time in two centuries, a new blue pigment that is stable and doesn’t fade has become commercially available. It’s called YInMn, which is short for some of the chemical components of the color — Yttrium, Indium, and Manganese — and it was discovered accidentally by scientists at Oregon State University who were testing materials for use in electronics applications. They applied extreme heat to the compound, and the vivid, eye-popping blue shown above emerged. You can read about the discovery of the pigment and the chemistry behind it here.

The people are the paint stores are already smiling about it, and putting the YInMn paint squares out there in the sample case, right next to cobalt, lapis, and azure, ready to trap the next unwary husband asked to express an opinion about which one he prefers and then forced to explain why he likes that one better than the rest.

Broken Circle

Suspensions, the exhibition of sculptures by Jerzy Jotka Kedziora at Schiller Park, was supposed to end in March 2020 — about the time the coronavirus turned our little corner of the world upside down. Whether it is due to COVID-19 issues or because people like me just enjoy them, the exhibition has been extended and the hanging sculptures are still there to be appreciated.

The sculpture above has attracted a lot of attention from passersby who have noticed that the strap on the one ring is unattached and are worried the sculpture needs repair. But that’s actually the whole point of this piece, which is called Broken Circle. The Friends of Schiller Park, which sponsored this exhibition, received so many inquiries about the sculpture they put up a sign with the artist’s explanation of the piece: “With one wheel severed, the gymnast is able to maintain the hard-to-explain position. I want viewers to interact with my sculptures, even if it is simply the viewer’s fear that the sculpture may fall.”

I am struck by Kedziora’s notion of the gymnast being “able to maintain the hard-to-explain position.” That seems like a pretty apt description of what many people have done in trying to keep their lives, and their family’s lives, in order in the face of a pandemic and the other issues that have made 2020 such a surreal year. If you’re one of the Moms, Dads, helping out grandmothers or grandfathers, stay-at-home workers, remote schoolers, masked health care workers, or countless other people who have been able to “maintain the hard-to-explain position” in the face of a broken circle and innumerable daily challenges, I salute you. Like the gymnast, you’ve survived the impossible.

It’s interesting how changes in the world can affect your impression of art, and vice versa.