In concrete jungle, Art Institute's gardens provide an oasis - Metropolitan Planning Council

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In concrete jungle, Art Institute's gardens provide an oasis

Photos by Mandy Burrell Booth

The Art Institute of Chicago, south garden

Many of Chicagoland’s most cherished public spaces are tucked away in the hearts of neighborhoods, known only to a lucky few. This summer, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) want to shine a spotlight on these special places across Chicagoland through the “What Makes Your Place Great? Your Secret Corner of Chicagoland” contest.

From June 2 through July 26, 2010, entrants can e-mail original photos or videos showcasing their favorite undiscovered public places across Chicagoland, along with a 250-word-or-less description, to The four chosen winners will win a prize package that includes passes to the Brookfield Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, Chicago History Museum, or CAF – and the chance to be featured in a CAF tour this fall. 

To get your creative juices flowing, MPC staff will be profiling their favorite spaces throughout the summer. To enter your own favorite space, read the complete contest guidelines at

As imposing as The Art Institute of Chicago is — all one million square feet, gracing a full block along Michigan Avenue, with its Beaux-Arts design and the beloved bronze lions — its two gardens, one just to the south and one to the north, are all subtlety and sanctuary.

The Fountain of the Great Lakes

Just steps away, the sidewalks and streets bristle with the city’s energy. As soon as you enter the gardens, the shrill sounds of taxi horns and hawkers fade away, absorbed by hedges and trees that give shade. The focal point of the south garden, designed by landscape architect Dan Kiley — who my colleague Josh Ellis would be interested to know also created the landscape surrounding the Jardine Water Purification Plan, which provides Chicagoans with clean water — is the Fountain of the Great Lakes. Yet most of the visitors are oblivious, lost in a good book, a cup of coffee, or quiet conversation. The garden’s structured gravel paths remind me of Paris and help me forget the daily grind. I challenge anyone to name a more peaceful place to have lunch in the Loop!

The Flying Dragon

The north garden’s bright sculptures, airy design and café tables invite a more vibrant relaxation. Laurie Olin designed the space as a sculpture garden; my favorite is the Flying Dragon by Alexander Calder, painted in his signature “Calder Red” – the same red he used for Flamingo, located just outside MPC’s offices in Federal Plaza.  

Whether you’re a resident of Chicago or a visitor, The Art Institute of Chicago is a must-see. Just be sure to take a few moments to walk through the gardens, which are just as beautiful as the art you’ll find inside.


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