After kicking off our first day in Chicago with a visit to Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, a spectacular view of the city from Skydeck Chicago on the 103 floor of Willis Tower, and a freaky experience of standing on The Ledge, a glass balcony 1,353 feet above the streets below, we decided to explore Millennium Park and look for the iconic, silver, shiny, Chicago bean sculpture, which is really called Cloud Gate.
Before we found The Bean, we spotted something that immediately grabbed our attention — giant digital faces on huge rectangular towers peeking out from behind the trees. We had no idea what it was, but it was weird enough that I had to find out, and as we were walking toward the two towers, one of the faces puckered their lips and suddenly water began shooting from the mouth! Hoards of kids were running around between the towers jumping and splashing in the shallow pool, and standing under the spitting faces!
Visiting Crown Fountain
The towers are collectively known as Crown Fountain, an interactive, live work of public art and video sculpture.
Crown Fountain is made up of two 50 foot tall towers made of glass brick that stand at each end of a 232 foot black granite reflecting pool. On the inside walls of the two towers, the walls that face each other, a diverse collection of video images of Chicago citizens are displayed. Water pours down all sides of the towers, creating a shallow pool between the two, that is maybe an inch deep at most.
Surrounded by low concrete planter boxes and benches, the shallow Crown Fountain in Millennium Park is a great place to let kids run around, burn off energy, and cool off on a hot day. Prepare for them to get wet or wear bathing suits, as it’s pretty hard to resist running underneath the “spitting” faces with all of the other kids!
About Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain
Funded by the Crown Family, designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, and executed by Krueck and Sexton Architects, the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park opened in July 2004 and cost $17 million.
In 1999, Lester Crown and his family agreed to sponsor a water feature in Millennium Park. Unlike other park feature sponsors, the Crowns acted independently of Millennium Park officials; they conducted independent surveys of water technologies, held their own informal design contest, and stayed active in the design and engineering of the project.
Eventually artist Jaume Plensa won the commission to design the fountain that would operate for thirty years. Plensa’s presentation for the proposed fountain focused on the philosophical meanings associated with fountains, their history, use and art, and included computer animation of facial expressions.
The fountain’s design references the traditional use of gargoyles in fountains, where faces of mythological beings were sculpted with open mouths to allow water, a symbol of life, to flow out. Plensa adapted this practice by having faces of Chicago citizens projected on LED screens and having water flow through an outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. The collection of faces, Plensa’s tribute to Chicagoans, features 960 residents chosen from local schools, churches and community groups. Filming began in 2001 at the downtown campus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
Each face appears on the sculpture for a total of 5 minutes using various parts of individual 80-second videos, including video of the mouth puckering, where water appears to spout from the open mouth!
The control center for the synchronization of images, water flow, and lighting color and intensity is beneath one of the towers. The room houses high-definition video servers and equipment temperature sensors. Hard drives contain all the individual electronic computer files of the face videos. Generally, the computer programs automatically perform tasks such as determining when the face will pucker and, if weather conditions permit, when to turn the water on and off. At night, the spotlights that illuminate the cascading water are dimmed.
Know Before You Go
- The Crown Fountain is located in Chicago’s Millennium Park at 201 E. Randolph Street, Chicago, Illinois 60602. (Near the corner of S. Michigan Avenue and E. Monroe Street.)
- The fountain uses over one million LED lights and 11,000 imperial gallons per hour, 97 percent of which is recycled back into the system.
- The Crown family, for whom the fountain is named, donated $10 million of the $17 million construction and design cost. The Goodman family, known for funding the Goodman Theatre, was also a large contributor. The entire $17 million cost was provided by private donations.
- The water operates from May to October, cascading down the two towers and periodically spouting through a nozzle on each tower’s front face, while the images remain in view throughout the year.
- During the warm months, bring the kids to the fountain to run around, play, and burn off steam! Be prepared for them to get wet though — it’s a great idea to have them wear a bathing suit.
- The Crown Fountain was designed without edges or deep water areas so a wheelchair can easily enter the fountain area and participate with full inclusion.