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Faces in the Fountain
Chicago's Millennium Park features high-tech public fountain
Faces in the Fountain

Photo Credit: Emily Leishman, Barco

The Crown Fountain at Chicago’s new $475 million Millennium Park is artwork for the people. Children and adults splash in the shallow pool on the fountain’s floor. The recorded faces of 1,000 Chicagoans take their turn gracing the fountain’s giant electronic digital displays — each face ends its 12-minute reign over the crowd by “spitting” water through pursed lips.

Millennium Park, originally slated to open in 2000 in a simpler form, grew into a lakefront, cultural park that features a flourishing music pavilion, gardens and several sculptures, including the Crown Fountain, by renowned artists.

The $17 million sculpture, the brainchild of Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, fuses the latest technology with the traditional concept of a public fountain. In this piece, human participation completes the scene. Water flowing over two, 50-ft.-tall, light-emitting diode (LED) screens at each end — which are encased in a wall of glass blocks — cascades into the 232-ft.-long, 48-ft.-wide, black-granite pool. Stepping into the dark, 1⁄8-in.-deep pool creates the illusion that its participants are walking on water.

Inner workings

The LED screens, embedded within the 50-ft.-tall, 23-ft.-wide and 16-ft.-deep towers, cycle through a display of the 1,000 faces, Illinois nature scenes and colored lights. More than 140, 3 x 2-ft. Barco (Logan, UT) SLite 14 LED video display tiles comprise the screens within the towers.

Twelve mechanical pumps, which circulate the water, are regulated from the control room in the underground parking garage below the fountain, said Christian Hanke, project architect from Krueck & Sexton Architects (Chicago). More than 11,000 gallons of water are cycled through the fountain each minute.

The myriad water, light and video features are operated by a video playback and control system in the control rooms. Barco’s D320 Digitizer sends video signals through fiberoptic cable to the screens inside the towers. The control system’s Xlite software calibrates each tile to accommodate the screen image, explained Dick Pearson, Barco senior director of program management.

Culture 22 (Schaumburg, IL) and Barnycz Group (Baltimore) provided a show control system that uses Mediasonic video servers.

Faces in the Fountain

Tackling the project

More than a dozen subcontractors lent their expertise and several years of planning to make Plensa’s concept for the fountain a reality.

Krueck & Sexton served as coordinating architects for the fountain, a project that spanned more than three years. No one involved had ever worked on such a project and, therefore, faced a huge learning curve every step of the way, Hanke said.

The coordination of the various contractors, who handled different pieces of the puzzle, was essential to the successful completion of the project, he said. Project consultants convened at least monthly in Chicago; also, the artist traveled from Europe every few months to check on the project. Frequent e-mail discussions with Plensa helped the architects stay on track with his original design concept, Hanke said. “We were the translators of Jaume Plensa’s idea,” he said.

Throughout the project planning, mock-ups of instrumental project pieces were tested to ensure that each component fit the fountain. A full-scale mock-up of the LED portion of the towers was constructed at Barco’s Utah headquarters, Pearson said.

Plensa and the project leaders viewed and approved it last December. Additionally, the glass-block mock-up was tested at glass manufacturer Circle Redmont in Melbourne, FL, and the water features were tested at Crystal Fountains headquarters in Concord, Ontario, Canada; the company handled the water components.

Using a high-definition camera, members of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago worked with Plensa to record the Chicagoans’ video images that appear on the LED screens. Each face remains onscreen for approximately 12 minutes. The final minute replicates the water-spewing gargoyles often found in traditional fountains. Before fading from the screen, the face puckers its lips, and water pours off the screen — seemingly from its mouth — into the pool.

“Every piece of the project was a challenge, because these things had never been put together before,” Hanke said. Project players determined how to construct a piece of art atop an underground parking garage amid weight restrictions, fuse together hand-poured glass blocks to create a tower, attach an LED display system to the interior of the structure, and incorporate the flow of water over every component.

Careful attention was placed on the towers’ final appearance. Electronics and water typically don’t mix, so the creators didn’t want the two items to appear separate, Hanke said. Their fusion adds to the interactive artwork’s mystique.

Intense research preceded the selection of each fountain component to ensure that it would endure for the next 50 to 100 years. For example, black granite on the floor of the reflecting pool provided the right color and appearance for that application — and the perfect granite could only be found in Zimbabwe, Hanke said.


The fountain’s installation took place in the midst of winter in the Windy City. Doyle Signs (Addison, IL) rented 85- to 100-ft. construction cranes, which were placed 35 ft. away from the towers’ bases, for the installation. The cranes were too heavy to be used atop the reflecting pool, said Terry Doyle, president of Doyle Signs, which installed the display.

Before arriving at the park, the LED tiles were mounted to frames and then installed on the steel tower structure onsite, Doyle said.

The tiles were meticulously spaced 1⁄4 in. apart to create a seamless picture. Steel ties were threaded through some of the 1⁄4-in. gaps to attach the glass wall, which is a few inches from the screen, to the steel structure behind the LED display. The attachments are invisible to the viewer, Doyle said.

After all of the pieces of the fountain were in place prior to the July public unveiling of Millennium Park, Pearson said he and several others conducted a final test of the screens. Attracted by the unconventional fountain, passers-by sidestepped the surrounding construction fences to tiptoe in the water and sneak a peek. “I really didn’t comprehend how cool it would be until I saw the final thing,” Pearson said.

Reprinted from Signs of the Times magazine, September 2004.

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