Crown Fountain

July 12, 2005
One-of-a-Kind Project Combines Art and Tech

Winner: Best Over $1 Million

Project Quick Facts

Cost: $17 million
Award Winners:
Shen Milsom & Wilke
Krueck & Sexton
Barco Media

By Maureen Patterson

The $17 million Crown Fountain in Chicago proves the adage “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The fountains - two 50-foot towers facing each other at opposite ends of a reflecting pool - are more than the art, architecture, and technologies that created them; they’ve become an experience unto themselves.

When it opened to the public in July of 2004, the project team had no idea how the idiosynchratic design would be received. “It’s a piece of sculpture, it’s a piece of art, it’s a piece of architecture, it’s a fountain,” says Mark Sexton, principal at Krueck & Sexton Architects, Chicago. He adds, “The biggest joy is the way everyone who has seen it has embraced it.”

Located in magnificent Millennium Park, adjacent to Chicago’s lakefront, the towers exemplify architecture in action. Each is made of glass blocks protecting an LED screen that randomly displays a person’s face, a nature scene, or a solid color. A few minutes after a face appears, the lips pucker and water shoots out. Then, water rushes down from the top of the structure, washing away the face, and another picture appears. Water continuously falls from the sides and back of each tower.

“It’s beautiful. It’s absolutely beautiful,” says Randy Tritz, a partner at Shen Milsom & Wilke, who served as multimedia consultants on the project.

Structure Takes Hold

Implementing the unique vision of Spanish artist Jaume Plensa required a sharp, creative team of thinkers who were willing to stretch technological boundaries. Some of the products that would be needed didn’t exist at the time, and no one had combined technologies like this before. Plensa is “probably the first artist that used water, glass, and electronics in that scale of a project worldwide,” says Steve Simard, market manager for Barco Media. “I’ve not seen projects of that scale marrying all three.”

The fact that Plensa was “intermixing water and video in the same place at the same time was something that just is not done in our industry,” adds Tritz. “The two of them are totally divergent capabilities and requirements that don’t mix well together.” But it was precisely that challenge, he admits, that got Tritz excited about the project.

One of the first challenges was to find a domestic manufacturer capable of producing glass blocks thin enough that they would not distort the images produced by the 24- by 49-foot LED displays behind them. The artist had found a European fabricator, but the project team needed a more cost-effective domestic supplier. With input from the project leaders, L.E. Smith Glass Co., Mt. Pleasant, PA, produced 22,000 5- by 10- by 2-inch blocks that resemble glass tiles or bricks. The blocks in front of the LEDs are clear, while the rest are textured.

Perhaps the biggest challenges were structural: finding a way to engineer components that could withstand the Windy City’s harsh winters, especially in a park where gusts whip off Lake Michigan; providing interior access for maintenance and repairs; and accommodating a two-level underground parking structure below the towers and reflecting pool.

One solution was a stainless steel T-bar grid to absorb weight. About 150 “outriggers” or “tiebacks” inserted through the video wall hold the glass blocks in place and absorb wind loads. Individual glass blocks can be removed for cleaning or repair without disruption to the display, though filtered air inside the towers minimizes the need for cleaning.

Pucker Up

The team also had to figure out how to add a fountain to each of the structures without disrupting the visual flow. In what the project team calls the “gargoyle” feature, the faces on the two screens pucker up and spout water in unison every 3 or 4 minutes. The team did not want pipes to protrude from the towers and interrupt the images. They didn’t want to remove LEDs in the mouth area because it would have looked like the face was missing a tooth.

Instead, the team decided to recess one LED tile in each tower about 6 inches and install 1-inch clear tubing for the water feature.

Wind gauges at the tops of the towers register wind speed and gusts, important because the gargoyle feature must be turned off when it’s too windy.

Staff members at the Art Institute of Chicago filmed more than 1,000 faces for the displays. “Each of those faces that you look at are each individual files that are stored on computer hard drives,” says Tritz. Those files have data that dictate when the face will pucker, if weather conditions permit, when to turn on and off the water, etc. If the weather is not good enough for the gargoyle effect, then water will not shoot out.

Programming randomness into the display controls was crucial to achieving the right effect, because the team did not want viewers to guess the sequence of events - whether a nature scene would follow a face, for example, or whether a particular face would follow a particular color block.

The brains of the operation are located underground, in a 550-square-foot control room beneath one of the towers. Features include high-definition video servers and sensors that monitor equipment temperatures. Although the programs run automatically, features such as the synchronization of images, water flow, and lighting color and intensity can be controlled remotely.

A pump room located under each tower draws water from a reservoir under the reflecting pool to supply the waterfalls and wash down the LED display when the face, nature scene, or shape disappears. “Each pump has to take the sand out of the water and recycle it and send it back out,” Simard explains.

All Together Now

From start to finish, team members had to work within the design framework set out by the artist.

“Jaume Plensa effectively wrote the story; we translated it,” says Sexton. “The challenge we all have as architects is that so many things in today’s world are great ideas, but then they get diluted ... and then as the dilution starts, the idea fades away. It was our goal not to have the idea fade away, but, in fact, make the idea stronger.”

To improve upon Jaume Plensa’s vision, the team had to challenge themselves to take a multidisciplinary approach, merging their skills and knowledge to achieve innovative results. Take the water feature, for example. At first, the team told Barco to put a hole in the LED display. As it turned out, however, that would have been too costly and time consuming. So the team came up with the idea of recessing one LED tile in each tower to accommodate the water tubes - a simple, inexpensive, yet effective solution. “We brought [team members] in for their total brain, and that’s why it ended up being so good,” Sexton says.

Team members proved that cost does not always equal quality. That was the case not just with the gargoyle feature, but with the LED resolution as well. Initial specifications called for a high-resolution display, which would have not only been more expensive than a low-resolution display, but would also have created a “sweet spot,” - the best position at which to view the display - at less than 10 feet away. A lower resolution created a sweet spot halfway between the towers, where most people stand. In this case, saving money improved the project’s overall quality.

Shifting to low resolution “really did little - very little - to impact the physical attributes of the display that the artist wanted to achieve,” Tritz says.

Team members knew from the outset that combining water, electricity, and lighting technologies would require a mind meld. But Simard and the others were confident that, with their wealth of resources, they could overcome all obstacles.

Over time and with perseverance, the project team combined their skills, and the various elements of the project came together. “It became a collaborative project between the architecture and the technology like something I’ve never seen before,” says Tritz.

As a result, technology and art both took a huge leap forward, proving, Tritz says, that “technology can be carried beyond the blinders that we all put on ourselves.”





AP7900 Power Controller


DMX Interface


Hard Disk




HD9200P HD Video Server


KVM Switch


JFS516 Ethernet Switch


LTM1575W HD Display


171N Computer Monitor


SX20 Power Conditioner


SuperMicro ESCAN immediate PC


S14 LED Modules


D320 Lite



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