BP Pedestrian Bridge

Photo: Torsodog

The flowing, sinuous work of award-winning architect Frank Gehry is possibly the most recognizable and influential style in contemporary architecture. Gehry is famously responsible for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California.

In 2004, Chicago was added to the list of cities hosting Gehry’s iconic architecture, with the opening of the resdesigned Millennium Park on Chicago’s downtown lakefront. In addition to the park’s Pritzker Concert Pavilion, Gehry created a stunning pedestrian bridge — now named the BP Pedestrian Bridge — to connect Millennium Park to the Daley Bicentennial Plaza.

 

Sleek, contemporary, and multipurpose

 

In designing this 925 foot long structure, Gehry transformed the simple concept of a footbridge into a gleaming, winding work of art. The bridge’s serpentine shape is reinforced by its 10,000 brushed stainless steel panels resembling the scales of a great snake — although Gehry has described the bridge as a kind of river.

The fluid, curving walkway is covered in 2,000 floor boards made of Brazilian hardwood, and visitors walking along the way can enjoy unparalleled views of Chicago’s skyline, the nearby Millennium Park, and the shores of Lake Michigan. The bridge’s gentle 5 percent grade makes it completely accessible to wheelchairs, and in addition to supplying a much-needed connection between downtown and the lakefront, it creates a sound barrier protecting the Pritzker Pavilion and Millennium Park from the noise of traffic on the 8 lanes of Columbus Drive below.

 

Controversy surrounding the bridge

Despite great reviews from critics all over the world, the BP Pedestrian Bridge has not been without controversy — this is Chicago, after all. Its beautiful Brazilian hardwood walkways can’t withstand the damage caused by rock salt, and since the bridge passes directly over Columbus Drive, there’s no place to dump shoveled snow. For this reason, the bridge is closed to pedestrians all winter long.

It’s been closed at other times as well. Much to the dismay of visitors and the vitriol of local activists, the Chicago Park District has closed off the bridge and the surrounding park numerous times for high-end corporations willing to pay rent in excess of half a million dollars for a private one-day event.

By far the most interesting controversy surrounding the bridge, however, lies in its destination.

Since it opened in 2004, this stunning walkway has ended in a decidedly less attractive part of the lakefront — the Daley Bicentennial Plaza. For years the plaza has been undergoing a drastic redesign, and it’s been mostly piles of dirt and slabs of concrete since 2011. So until 2015, when construction is slated for completion, the BP Pedestrian Bridge will remain a bridge to nowhere.

A spectacular piece of structural sculpture and a gigantic public work of art, Frank Gehry’s Millennium Park bridge is quintessential Chicago — impassable in winter, big and bold, and an iconic and controversial addition to the City of Big Shoulders.