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Article : Chicago's Crown Fountain Is King of the Park

Chicago’s Crown Fountain Is King of the Park

By Larry O’Hearn, Crystal Fountains, and Mark Sexton, Kreuk & Sexton Architects,
as told to Jennifer A. Pringle




An engineer was selected for dousing duty in the test pool. His small size helped simulate a large child—and made sure the stream would not overpower children. Once the flow was correct, project artist Juame Plensa enjoyed a shower in the test pool too.

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Crown Fountain debuted one year ago in Chicago’s Millennium Park—the landmark plan that turned a longtime railroad yard into a city showpiece.

Planners knew they wanted a feature that would complement neighboring Buckingham Fountain, the largest fountain in the world when built in 1927. A call went out for designs, and submissions were received from Maya Lin, Robert Venturi and other well-known architects. Park planners, however, selected an unorthodox and audacious design by Spanish conceptual artist Jaume Plensa.

They were undaunted by the technical challenges—a pair of 50-foot towers facing each other across a black granite plaza covered with an eighth-inch of water (to give visitors the illusion they’re walking on water). But that was the easy part. Plensa’s towers were to incorporate huge LED video screens that would project images of native Chicagoans who would spontaneously appear to spew streams of water from their pursed lips.

The design was, in a sense, a high-tech update of the Buckingham Fountain, which features water-spouting horses. It was an audacious plan, but Chicago philanthropist Steve Crown (whose family put up $10 million of the $17 million total cost) embraced it.

“Juame took a risk,” Crown told the Chicago Sun-Times after the fountain’s debut. “He’s working with a lot of ideas from the older school of fountains and updating them, which we liked. The result is very different, very contemporary, and yet it also has a lot of traditional themes running through it.”

The Vision

It was a huge gift to the design team: explicit permission to take risks. In an inspirational moment during the planning process, patron Crown told the group, somewhat facetiously, “I know you will fail and that’s OK.” The unusual statement signalled tremendous artistic and engineering license. The planners were freed to use guts and intuition, without the pressure of deadlines or conventional expectations.

The Spanish-born sculptor won the design competition for the fountain of Millennium Park with a public water feature that would enable people to interact with the water and each other. He envisioned a modern day piazza—complete with a fountain.






There is a wide band of slip-resistant stainless steel grating surrounding the base of each tower. The grating allows the water to return to its reservoir while preventing little toes from getting stuck or slipping through. Inset: The gray band at the fountain’s base is the steel drain grating.


The creation would be a gathering place that provided hours of fun or peace, conversation or anonymity. Known for his philosophy of transforming and regenerating a space, Plensa’s fountain is no exception.

Two 50-foot-tall glass structures face each other across a wide, shallow skin of water. Water falls down all four sides of the glass-block towers, inviting children and adults alike to play. Every few minutes, the 2,800 gallons per minute of water stops and faces appear. They are the faces of real Chicago residents between the ages of 7 and 80. More than 1,000 individuals were filmed by students of the Art Institute of Chicago to be projected onto the inner sides of the towers.






Water falls down three sides of the towers continuously, and when the videotaped faces and nature scenes take a break, water plunges down all four sides to delight and cool off children on a hot summer’s day. The fountain does not operate in winter.


Chosen to represent the racial and ethnic diversity of the city, those selected were asked to pose facing the camera for 12 minutes. They were told to blow a kiss for another minute so that, when the videotaped face on the tower is about to disappear, its lips purse. Visitors are showered with a 60 gallon-per-minute stream of water that shoots from the face’s mouth. The team calls this the gargoyle effect—another contemporary version of an ancient water
feature element.

A large part of Plensa’s approach to the space was his desire to give people the sensation of walking on water. The bottom of the large reflecting pool between the towers is constructed of African black granite pavers. Covered by an eighth-inch of water, visitors can accomplish this feat with only the soles of their shoes getting wet!

In the evening, with the lighting and changing colors, the images look like they’re having a conversation with each other and the surrounding environment. The faces are reflected in the water, as well. Landscaped gardens with benches surround the space, which is 232 feet long by 48 feet wide and provide a great vantage point for onlookers. At a cost of just under $17 million, Crown Fountain is a valuable reflection of and for the city that will entertain and delight millions of people for years to come.

Teamwork Pays Off

The team was lead by Roark Frankel, vice president of US Equities. As client representative, Frankel’s job was to ensure the donated funds were directed to build a fountain that would become an integral part of Millennium Park.

Kreuk & Sexton Architects is an award-winning Chicago design firm with a concern for humanistic values and reputation for design integrity. Sexton had never worked with Frankel before, and his firm had never created a water feature! While it was known that the architect was good with glass and engineering, it is refreshing to learn that some patrons and developers are open and willing to hire firms that can apply existing knowledge to something completely new.






A close-up of the custom acrylic nozzle block from inside the tower. The piping leads water into a hollowed out cavity that is 2 inches wide and 7 inches long. This chamber allows the water to mix in order to equalize the pressure before being forced through a total of 360 holes that are one-sixteenth inch in diameter.e


Crystal Fountains was brought aboard to contribute mechanical and electrical fountain system experience, but because of its 35-year history of water feature design was encouraged to help in the actual design the fountain. Importantly, everyone seemed to leave their ego at the door. Initially distrusting the process, since neither artist nor architect wanted to work with another domineering personality, Sexton and Plensa built an excellent relationship. Plensa was willing to hand his design over, simply saying, “don’t let it be less than what it is!”

The process took two-and-a-half years. The team agreed that even though the job was to physically develop a concept, the role was not just technical in nature. Plensa helped the team approach the installation as artists, in a sense becoming his apprentices

Problems Become Solutions

The Crown Fountain requires a very complex system to run the artist’s seemingly simple effects. The first problem to solve was how to introduce the eighth-inch depth of water onto the pavers without anyone seeing the source or disrupting the delicate skin of water. Second, the shallow water got hot under the summer sun, so it would need to be continually refreshed. Third, the entire water system had to accommodate the enormous flow of water down the tower walls and from the spouts. In addition, the fountain was being built over a large underground parking garage, so where could the water reservoir go while using as little space as possible?






The water feature emits a mysterious glow at night. Dozens of color mixing lights were mounted on the frame of the tower to produce the effect. The fixtures are installed on three sides, facing up, and work together to create a seamless glow without hot spots or glare. Each fixture behaves like a mini TV screen – hundreds of tiny lights working together to create what looks like one source.


Using the concept of deck-level fountains, the solution was to suspend the pavers over a reservoir that is actually about two-and-a-half feet deep. Because the pool takes up the entire area of the fountain, it is large enough to collect the water flowing down the towers. Water gently surges up from the reservoir at 5,266 gallons per minute through the narrow spaces between the pavers, which sit on pedestals.

A series of electro-mechanical float switches control the water level. An integrated water flow system takes surge capacity into account and allows the skin of water to go right up to the bases of the towers. Each tower’s water resources are tapped from its own reservoir and a collection trough surrounds the reflecting pool.

Gargoyle Effect

Team-leader Frankel has said the single trickiest thing about building the fountain was the so-called gargoyle effect. While some of the questions which plagued the team initially were puzzling, there was none so mystifying as how to create a water spout from videotaped lips! There were several extremely challenging aspects to this problem.

First, since the specified building material was glass block, the team strained to figure how it would be possible to make water gush out of the glass block. After testing an idea of sneaking piping between the screen and glass, we solved the problem by offsetting a segment of the screen itself so we could snake smaller pipes through the gaps.






At night the underwater illumination can penetrate through the stainless steel grating. The up lighting at the base of the towers is achieved using a total of 120 500-watt fixtures. They are mounted on custom made stainless steel stands beneath the grating.


Secondly, when the spout flow stops, the source of the water has to disappear. How could the nozzle become invisible? The components had to have the mechanical and electrical properties suitable for a public water feature and they couldn’t interrupt the image on the screen. Any nozzle had to withstand start-ups time and time again.

This required a lot of team brainstorming and collaboration combined with superior material knowledge. All nozzles and fittings needed to be translucent–not the usual brass—so the team set out to design custom parts. Transparent pipe was used to create a nozzle out of 2-to-4-inch-thick blocks of UV-stabilized cast acrylic chosen to withstand the elements and look like a glass block.

An additional challenge was the high volume of the water effects. How could the team calibrate a proportionate amount of water that does not hurt children playing below? The towers are 50 feet high. In order to appropriately balance the size of a projected face – with an 8-to-10-foot-wide mouth, the gargoyle spout would be 16 feet above the pool floor!

Free-falling drops of water are heavy. Engineers calculated that in order to fit the design, the stream of water would have to be one foot in diameter. Clearly, a stream the size of a fire hose or larger could injure people.






The reflecting pool is actually two-and-a-half-feet deep and located over an underground parking garage. Black granite pavers are suspended, sitting on adjustable pedestal jacks.


Landscape architect O’Hearn found himself standing in front of the bathroom mirror, experimenting with the flow of water coming out of his own mouth! A funny image, yes, but through this exercise the answer became clear. A series of really tiny, tightly-spaced streams would look big but feel gentle. Engineers created a nozzle with hundreds of little holes.

The team designed a system of tightly-spaced nozzle openings in various sizes. In order to realize the artist’s design intent, several mock-ups were developed. By hanging a 25-foot-high section of acrylic blocks 50 feet above the ground and building a trough and a pool, we created a life-sized prototype.

This strange-looking model allowed team members to observe how the falling water looked over the blocks and test desired flow rates for both the water walls and gargoyle effect. It also provided an opportunity to measure wind spray, explore various lighting techniques and ensure the design met safety standards.

Steve Crown and Juame Plensa attended at Crystal’s R & D facility outside of Toronto to see our pilot project. Plensa even donned a raincoat, stood in the test pool, and allowed the water to soak him. He loved it!

A Successful Conclusion

In the end, it seems everyone loves the Crown Fountain. It’s the most visited feature in the 24.5-acre park which also includes work by Frank Gehry, Anish Kapoor and landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson. The fountain was also planned to be accessible to the disabled. This May, the Paralyzed Veterans of America awarded park design director Ed Uhlir its 2005 Barrier-Free America Award.






The LED screen alternates faces and nature scenes. The panels are DMX-based control panels made by McDowell Electric. The towers are illuminated via LED light fixtures that are capable of reproducing many millions of specific colors.


If Plensa wrote the poem, the team successfully translated it. “Permission to fail” was as much a gift to the design team as now is a gift to the people of Chicago.

Larry O’Hearn is a landscape architect and vice president of design at Toronto, Canada-based Crystal Fountains. Mark Sexton is principal at Kreuk & Sexton Architects in Chicago. Jennifer A. Pringle is a Toronto-based freelance writer and vice president of the Halton-Peel Communications Assoc.


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November 24, 2014, 9:50 am EST

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