Monday, 30 October 2006

As far as I can tell, the Russians (Maybe Czech? Still not 100% sure though.) and the Chinese are all gone. As I went to breakfast I saw the army of women in the hallways, the restaurant, the lobby, and the parking lot, all getting ready to go.

Since I had most of the day to kill before the show, I decided to play tourist for a while and do some sightseeing. My original plan was to see the Art Institute, Sears Tower, Millennium Park, and maybe Union Station.

But first, breakfast and some writing. It was 8:30 before I actually got my ass out of bed and showered. Then a quick breakfast and I sat down to do some writing. It was almost noon before I looked up.

Like most downtown areas, Chicago is tall. You get into the city and the buildings loom over you. What I didn’t expect was how dark it was. Outside the city it was a bright, sunny day. All the skyscrapers cast such a shadow that you would think it was dusk. Everything took on that black and white cast you see when the light starts to fade in the evening.

Parking in downtown is expensive. The day rate for a Sunday afternoon was $12 pretty much everywhere I looked. In the Twin Cities it tends to be around $5 for evenings and all day weekends. Chicago it’s twice that.

I decided on Sears Tower first and boy was I impressed. They have the business of moving tourists through there down to a science. A special entrance away from the office part of the building, express elevators that go straight to the observation deck, or the SkyDeck as it’s called, a small movie theater where they run a short film before you go up, plus ushers, turnstiles, and rope-lines to keep everyone moving in the right direction.

Two things amused me about it: First, before you even get to the ticket counter, everybody goes through a miniature photo studio and gets their picture taken against a green-screen. On the way out they offer a picture of yourself with the skyline pasted into the background. Second, the quick movie was done by the History Channel and was basically a stunted version of their Modern Marvels series.

The elevator ride up is amazingly fast considering that it takes you over 1400 feet above ground. That thing ran the 103 floors in 60 seconds or so and my ears popped at least twice on the way up.

Once at the top, the view was astounding. There aren’t words to describe it. They say that on a clear day you can see for 50-60 miles. Today it was a bit hazy, so you only got 30 miles out of it. Even at that height, you can still pick out individual cars, and even people if you look carefully.

I didn’t get the sense of vertigo I normally do from being up high, mostly because the tower is surrounded by several other tall buildings, so it has the visual effect of bringing the ground up higher and it doesn’t seem as far down. Still, out of the nearly 250 pictures I took from and of the tower, I did get a few just for my mom.

After my time in the sky, I wandered the couple blocks over to Union Station. This one wasn’t nearly as cool as Union Depot in Denver. From the outside, being surrounded by taller structures made for difficult picture angles. I don’t know that I got any truly good shots.

It didn’t look much like a train station at all from the inside. It had been modernized quite a bit and didn’t have a single remnant of the glory days of railroads. I wasn’t allowed out onto the train platform at all, and the guard made me put my camera away when I tried to snap a picture through the window. For a train buff like me, that was quite a bit of a let-down since the view was pretty cool with several trains parked.

After Union Station, I hopped a cab over to Millennium Park. It was only a mile away, but not knowing the area it was hard to tell which way. Even though the GPS would have gotten me there, driving it myself was out of the question as I didn’t want to deal with the parking challenges.

There are several cool things to see at Millennium Park. One is the pavillion. They have several hundred seats up front, plus a huge green space behind them. The whole area has a grid-work of sweeping beams with a network of speakers hanging from them. There is a tall, retractable glass “curtain” to protect the stage while it’s not in use. Actually, I’m sure it can’t be glass. That would be far too heavy and fragile for the way it’s installed. I’ll go with Lexan or with some other modern plastic.

The interesting stage architecture didn’t stop there. If you look at the amphitheater itself, you’d see a lot of similarities between it and the Weisman Art Museum on the U of M campus. Stainless steel panels, lots of curves and funny angles. It’s one of those things that people either absolutely love or absolutely hate.

The thing I was really there to see was the “Cloud Gate” sculpture on the plaza. It’s a 66 foot by 42 foot blob that stands 33 feet tall. It’s totally smooth, polished steel that resembles liquid mercury. Everywhere you stand around it, or under it’s 10-12 foot arch, you see the skyline, sky, and other park-goers reflected back at you. If you look carefully, you can find yourself in there, sometimes in multiples.

There was a guy doing a painting of the sculpture and I talked with him for several minutes. He gave me some information about the sculpture and even said that if you stand dead center underneath you might be able to see a seam where there’s a trap-door into the sculpture’s innards.

Apparently the thing is hollow inside and has an internal system of wires and weights that are computer controlled. They’re used to balance against wind and temperature changes for the structure so it doesn’t deform or collapse through the seasons.

Not realizing it was there, I missed the interactive Crown Fountain, but that’s OK. The water was shut off for the winter and it gives me a reason to come back.

I spent so long just sitting in the park I didn’t make it to the Art Institute. I wanted to offload my pictures from the camera, find the theater for tonight’s show (review coming soon) and get something to eat before it started.

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