Those who hooted down the white carbuncle that movie mogul George Lucas wanted to erupt next to Soldier Field can take a measure of vindication from the architectural illustrations released ahead of Wednesday’s groundbreaking for the Star Wars creator’s new Museum of Narrative Art.
Gone is what Chicago wits dubbed “Jabba the Hutt’s Palace” or “Space Mountain” when they were sending the project packing two years ago, replaced by a pair of joined ovals that looks very much like a star cruiser designed to dock at Spaceport Soldier Field. An homage perhaps.
So maybe the old design wasn’t so avant-garde after all.
Not that the new design, also by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, is much better—a bacterium caught in mid-mitosis. Inside, some vaguely familiar curving ceilings that, naturally, were praised to the skies by beneficiaries of the estimated $1 billion project.
“The building itself will certainly be an icon of 21st century design,” said museum president Don Bacigalupi, perhaps before he got a good look at the interior, which looks more like an icon of Space Age design circa 1962, specifically, the TWA Terminal at JFK.
This doesn’t even touch upon the supposed purpose of the museum itself, the “narrative arts” an omnium gatherum category designed to enfold Lucas’ vast holdings of “Star Wars” memorabilia, his Norman Rockwell and American illustration collections, and give the endeavor a sense of significance that just off-loading his keepsakes into a permanent home obviously lacked.
And we can savor that the ground-breaking is being held in Los Angeles, in Exposition Park and not the $10, 99-year lease on Chicago’s lakefront that the Park District and the City Council happily handed Lucas. The museum is a better fit for L.A., with its movie industry, and other vanity museums, like The Broad collection of contemporary art, and the Getty Museum and Villa.
Sure, it would be natural to feel a slight pang at this point—Los Angeles gets a new museum, whatever it looks like and whatever it houses. All that construction money, and those tourist dollars, while we have the same old parking lot next to the hybrid-horrible home of a cellar-dwelling football team that last won a Super Bowl when I was 24.
Was that really smart of us?
I still maintain it was. We don’t have the museum, but we do have our pride. We stood up for the idea that you can’t just build anything anywhere in Chicago just because you’re rich and you want a choice spot to erect your personal tomb. Particularly if you’re building your C-3PO Cheops on the lakefront, which was supposed to be “forever open, clear and free.” The only reason we have available lakefront land to be coveted by any billionaire who wants to construct his R2-D2 Repository there is because our forebears took their duty to the city a little more seriously than does the current crop of just-spell-my-name-right-on-the-check leaders.
What we don’t build is as important as what we do. Chicago never was able to approve a downtown casino, yet the city still stands, the better for it. The Spire stayed a deep hole, the various circulators and faddish pipe dreams that were also stiff-armed would have brought money, too, but we get by without them. I can’t predict the future. Maybe the Lucas Museum will be the next Disneyland. Or maybe times and tastes will change, as they tend to, and our grandchildren won’t want to pony up $50 to see Princess Leia’s hair appliance. Put another way: is there anything currently in Los Angeles that you wish were here instead? The La Brea Tar Pits? Watts Tower? The Hollywood sign? Anything at all? I didn’t think so. All that stuff belongs out there. So does this museum. Lucas made the right call. And so did Chicago.