Photographing Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park


Surrounded by a city of skyscrapers pointing to the sky, the Pritzker Pavilion is an idiosyncratic explosion of form. Opportunities abound for photographers to find unique and stunning views of this Chicago showpiece.

Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park is architect Frank Gehry’s first commission in Chicago. Is it a building? Is it sculpture? However you classify it, it’s an unqualified hit. It’s been called dynamic. Soaring. Show-stopping. Otherworldly. Spectacular. Glittering. Billowing. Ecstatic. Joyful. Dancing. Rapturous.


Millennium Park from Above by Chris Smith

Millennium Park from Above by Chris Smith

The Pavilion was planned as the centerpiece of Millennium Park, the exceedingly popular 24.5 acre park that is part of larger Grant Park, the city’s “front yard.” Built on land that was long given over to rail yards and parking lots, the park was intended to be a celebration of the dawn of the 21st century, but it wasn’t completed until 2004. As the blog so eloquently puts it, Mayor Daley “had recruited businessman John Bryant to help navigate the now budget-busting project that morphed from a nice but average park into a major statement about art, architecture and landscape design for a new century.” No wonder it ran over budget and way beyond deadline…

Along with the installations of incredible interactive public art (Cloud Gate, aka The Bean, and Crown Fountain) and the planting of a sophisticated urban garden (Lurie), the park needed a new outdoor entertainment structure as home for the Grant Park Music Festival. The idea for free music concerts for Chicagoans originated during the Depression when the first Petrillo Music Shell was built in Grant Park. A replacement – the current Petrillo bandshell – went up in 1978. The Millennium Park pavilion was to be the 21st century manifestation.

The city had first given the pavilion commission to Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (of John Hancock and Sears/Willis Tower fame), but additional donors entered the picture and changed course. The Pritzker family, one of the richest in the United States and owners of the Hyatt chain, decided to make a major contribution. In 1979 they had founded the famous Pritzker Prize for architecture and now brought in its 1989 winner, Gehry, to redesign the pavilion. Jay Pritzker died in January 1999 and the structure would be named in his honor.

In February of 1999 the city announced it was negotiating with Gehry to design a bandshell and a pedestrian bridge across Columbus Drive. By this time, Gehry was world-famous for his acclaimed Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, with its cutting-edge, sinuous, metallic form. “The Bilbao Effect,” as it came to be known, put little Bilbao on the map, with millions of people making their way there just to see this spectacular structure.

These ribbons of steel are almost like petals of a flower blossoming out in many directions. They’ve also been likened to frozen music.

Chicago didn’t so much need “The Bilbao Effect,” but it appears that those involved definitely wanted more of Gehry’s signature style. And he produced it, while spreading his creative wings with some new concepts, as well.

Pritzker Close Up

Pritzker Close Up by Chris Smith

Gehry’s design was met with excitement…and controversy. The nineteenth-century historic mandate to keep the area Randolph to Madison Streets east of Michigan Avenue “free and clear” of all structures still held. What had resulted were city ordinances restricting the height of any buildings there, restrictions that would have eliminated Gehry’s out-sized design. Chicago being Chicago, a way around was found: the city classified the pavilion as sculpture rather than as a building. Voilà! No height restrictions. (Crown Fountain got in via this loophole, too.)

Gehry designed the 120-feet high pavilion with a proscenium that is framed by a billowing ‘headdress’ of brushed stainless steel. These ribbons of steel are almost like petals of a flower blossoming out in many directions. They’ve also been likened to frozen music. And that is no accident: like Gehry’s Experience Music Project in Seattle, the Pritzker Pavilion is intentionally designed to evoke music. The lower billowing parts actually do work to reflect sound out to the audience, while the top portion is purely decorative.

To enhance all that billowing steel, a decorative lighting system provides colored light washes and projections during performances …and after dark.

Gehry’s style is known to some as “deconstructivism.” Architecture writer Lynn Becker says it could be called “techno-baroque.” It is a breaking free from rigid rectilinear forms to create exuberance and energy, taking the eye on a delightful journey. This complex architecture, not surprisingly, is made possible by computer generated design. Even though Gehry doesn’t touch a computer, he has plenty of associates who make his magic happen with the CATIA (Computer Assisted Three Dimensional Interactive Application).

If you look at the back elevation of the headdress, you will see a very un-billowy design: in a bit of a historic tribute to Chicago’s architectural tradition, Gehry left the structural elements exposed.

Gehry intended his open air venue to bring people in, to make them feel a part of the experience. He accomplished this by making the proscenium larger than normal. The glass doors (that convert the stage to an indoor space as needed) measure 100 feet wide and 50 feet tall. The stage can fit a full orchestra and 150-voice chorus.

He also accomplished this by making sound quality a priority. Instead of sight-obstructing poles with speakers, Gehry concocted an overhead trellis of crisscrossing steel pipes, which supports the state-of-the-art sound system. The trellis spans the 4,000 fixed seats and the 95,000 foot Great Lawn, which accommodates an additional 7,000 people. With a speaker every 70 feet and a delayed effect to sync the sound from stage to the farthest lawn seat, the system brilliantly mimics the acoustics of an indoor concert venue. As Gehry intended, it makes every seat seem close to the stage.

Dedicated on July 16, 2004, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is home to the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, the Grant Park Music Festival, many other music series and performing arts events.

Your photographic options here are pretty mind-boggling! Check out Chris’s earlier post.

I think that focusing on composition is going to yield the best shots. Make use of all the curving lines in the headdress, the seating, and the trellis. Juxtapose all the curvaceousness against the straight lines of the skyline beyond.


BP Pedestrian Bridge

BP Pedestrian Bridge by Chris Smith

The trees and flowers of the park provide pretty, organic foregrounds – as does Gehry’s BP pedestrian bridge that snakes its silvery way over Columbus Drive. From Lurie Garden, the pavilion just kind of peeks up above the plants.

Along with line, you have patterns to play with: again, the repeated rows of seating, and the repeating lines of the trellis, slicing their way through the skyscrapers.

Pulling in tight on the textured steel – especially when it’s illuminated in a rainbow of colors at night – can make for some spectacular abstract photographs.

Pulling out can be a great way to capture the big picture. And you can pull WAY out by shooting from buildings in and around the park: the Art Institute, the Cultural Center, and any other buildings you might be able to talk your way into!



Peeking Above the Lurie Garden by Angie McMonigal

One of my favorite views of Pritzker Pavilion is the kind of surprise glimpse you get while walking around the Loop and looking east on Washington Street. All the straight lines around you – and suddenly there pops this bold, billowing structure.

Depending on the day, time, and season, you may be able to freely walk around the pavilion. But you might choose to attend a concert and photograph the pavilion when it is filled with bodies and sound and energy. You can find the more information at the Millennium Park website.

No matter how you approach it, the sculptural, dynamic Pritzker Pavilion is a phenomenal photographic subject.

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  • Great article! Love the Pritzker Pavilioin and enjoyed learning some things I didn’t know.

  • Another great article, Wendy! It was a brilliant move on the part of the city to build the pavilion and all of Millennium Park.