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Imported Hardwoods at the Heart of Millenium Park


It’s hard to imagine a higher concentration of talent, ideas, and expressions of design than you’ll find in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Situated between the Lake Michigan shore and Chicago’s exquisite skyline, you would never know that these 25 acres of flora and fun were until a few years ago a railroad yard and a parking lot.

At the north end of the park sits the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by Frank Gehry. Framed by Gehry’s trademark stainless steel ribbons, the pavilion is the most advanced outdoor concert venue in the United States. Up to 11,000 concert goers sit in fixed seats and on the Great Lawn under a trellis of steel pipes that carries a state-of-the-art sound system, carefully designed to mimic the acoustics of an indoor concert hall. After dark, the pavilion is illuminated by everchanging lighting schemes that give the structure an otherworldly life of its own.

Imported hardwoods play a significant role in the pavilion, the bridge, and throughout Lurie Gardens, says project design director Ed Uhlir. “Wood was obviously the best choice acoustically for the pavilion stage and much more comfortable to walk on in the garden and on the bridge than concrete or other materials. “For the pavilion stage, Frank Gehry liked the look of jarrah, with its warm, reddish color. Jarrah is sourced from Eucalyptus trees in Australia, and it coordinates quite nicely with special acoustic wall and ceiling panels fabricated from Douglas fir plywood. “The front of the pavilion is enclosed by large glass hangar doors that move on tracks to open the stage to the Great Lawn. The stage apron is outside of the glass doors and exposed to the elements year round, so we continue to put sealers on the exposed jarrah to keep the stage looking more uniform.”

Gehry also designed the 925-foot-long winding BP Bridge, which connects Millennium Park to Daley Bicentennial Plaza, east of the park. It’s Gehry’s first bridge and provides incomparable views of the Chicago skyline, Grant Park, and Lake Michigan. Clad in brushed stainless steel panels, the BP Bridge complements the Pritzker Pavilion in function as well as design by creating an acoustic barrier from the traffic noise below.

Designed by the internationally recognized landscape architectural firm Gustafson Guthrie Nichols Ltd., the two-and-a-half acre Lurie Garden pays homage to the city’s motto, “Urbs in Horto” (City in a Garden).

Specifically, its design references Chicago’s transformation from flat and marshy origins to a bold and powerful city. A graceful hardwood footbridge over shallow water acts as a diagonal seam between the “light” and “dark” plates of the garden. “Ipé was selected for the garden and the bridge because it’s a replenishable resource, incredibly durable, impervious to rot and attacks by insects, and weathers to a nice silver color,” says Uhlir. “Mr. Gehry is very familiar with these woods, and the color of ipé as it ages was a big factor.”

Tying the Past to the Future with Design

Lurie Garden was designed by Jennifer Guthrie, ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects), a partner at Seattle-based Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd. She teamed up with Pete Udolf, a “perennial plantsman” from Holland, and theater set designer Robert Israel, to set a vision for the space.

The expansive BP Bridge, designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry, links Chicago's Millennium Park to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Imported ipé hardwood was chosen for its durability and the silver-gray color it takes on as it ages. Gehry also designed the Jay Pritzker Pavilion using jarrah, not only for its durability but for its warm color.

The expansive BP Bridge, designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry, links Chicago's Millennium Park to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Imported ipé hardwood was chosen for its durability and the silver-gray color it takes on as it ages. Gehry also designed the Jay Pritzker Pavilion using jarrah, not only for its durability but for its warm color.



Our proposal specified wood for the garden walkway, and we wanted to be sure it tied in with the bridge, which lands at the corner of the garden,” says Guthrie. “There are two major components. First, the ‘dark plate’ on the east side of the main walkway references the past, and the ‘light plate’ on the west side of the seam represents Chicago’s future, optimism, and proactive culture.”

“The seam itself alludes to when Chicago was lifting itself up from marsh. After the fire, Chicago was a city of boardwalks, and we wanted to be literal to the material, which is why wood was the perfect choice. “We looked at jarrah first but chose ipé because it allowed for the range of sizes for which we were looking. It was also what Frank Gehry had specified for the BP Bridge, so we wanted to tie into that language. “It’s a hardwood, extremely durable, great for commercial uses, and it has the same fire rating as concrete. It’s also pest resistant and can handle light vehicular traffic.

“The walkway is just above the water flowing through the space. Ipé was just what we were looking for – it fades with sun to a silvery gray and actually gets better with age, unlike concrete. “We used the same wood to create large, non-directional benches throughout the garden. We wanted people to be able to stop, sit atop them Indian style if they wanted, lie down, or even dangle their feet in the water. “We’re very happy with how it has turned out,” says Guthrie. “The walkway is a 300-foot span, and we didn’t give the contractors the easiest task – it has an arc and a slight rise and fall, so there’s some movement to it.

“This is the first time we’ve really used ipé or any imported hardwoods for anything more than benches or small decks. We have used it on other projects since like the Yokohama ferry terminal, where every exterior walking surface is ipé, and the Bibliotheque National de France in Paris, where it forms the grand stairs surrounding the building block as well as the top decking surface where the four buildings touch the ground plane.”

In all, ipé covers 13,000 square feet of the bridge and garden, and jarrah covers the pavilion’s 3,975 square foot stage. Guthrie concludes, “Using imported woods is something that people are getting more comfortable with, especially when they get their heads around the real value and beauty of the material.

Copyright© 2006 by the International Wood Products Association. Published by Bedford Falls Communications, Inc. and circulated to an audience of 20,000 architects, designers, distributors, manufacturers, and users of imported wood products in North America.

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