Futuristic concept for Lucas museum touches off civic debate

SHARE Futuristic concept for Lucas museum touches off civic debate

A palace for Jabba the Hutt. An amorphous, land-eating colossus. The Jetsons on the lakefront. Close encounters of the fourth or fifth kind.

All over Chicago Tuesday, people were buzzing with strong opinions — not just about who would win the nail-biting race for governor — but about the futuristic design of the interactive museum movie mogul George Lucas plans to build on 17 acres of free lakefront land.

Chinese architect Ma Yansong has called his conceptual design for a flowing white sculptural building topped by a Saturn-like floating ring of an observation deck a “new type of architecture for the world.”

Mission accomplished with Chicago’s movers and shakers, but not exactly in a good way, according to some.

“It looks like a palace for Jabba the Hutt. I was wondering what planet we are on,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), a mayoral challenger who believes the museum belongs at the old Michael Reese Hospital.

Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said Ma’s design looks like “a spaceship out of Star Wars,” the movie franchise Lucas made famous.

“It’s a pretty substantial profile on the lakefront, which could pose some challenges with regard to the lakefront protection ordinance,” said Reilly, who went toe-to-toe with former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2008 over Daley’s ill-fated plan to build a new Children’s Museum in Grant Park.

Ald. Will Burns (4th), whose ward includes the proposed south lakefront site, was trying his best to be diplomatic.

“It’s important for the design to have some humanity to it,” Burns said. “It’s striking. It’s bold. [But] I don’t think we do austere, cold, rigid buildings in Chicago. Our buildings talk to you and interact with the environment.”

Friends of the Park President Cassandra Francis said Ma’s “amorphous, land-eating colossus” will marshal support for a lawsuit to stop what she calls a clear violation of the Lakefront Protection Ordinance and the 1973 Lakefront Plan of Chicago that prohibits “further private development” east of Lake Shore Drive.

She called Ma’s design bigger, taller and more obtrusive than lakefront protectionists expected.

“It’s taller than McCormick Place east and just 40 feet shorter than the addition to Soldier Field. The building has also grown fourfold. They were talking about 100,000 square feet. This is 400,000 square feet with seven levels and a footprint virtually the same as the surface parking lot,” Francis said.

“It’s also clear that this design nets a lot less than the seven acres net add of open green space than was originally promised. This type of oversized element does not belong on our lakefront. This type of design would stand out much better at a site like a deck over the 31st street truck marshalling yards for McCormick Place or at the Michael Reese Hospital site.”

Lee Bey, a former architecture critic-turned-city-planner, served on the mayoral site selection committee that chose the museum campus. He called Ma’s design “very bold, particularly for Chicago.”

“We’re used to an architecture that’s kind of boxy and rectangular, and this is none of that. For me, it takes the eye time to adjust,” Bey said. “I could get used to the unusual form. But to make it out of stone like this — that’s where I’m struggling. In stone, my fear is it’ll read too monolithic, too poured in place. That’s where my concern is.”

Recalling the civic hand-wringing that preceded the renovation of Soldier Field, Bey predicted Ma’s conceptual design would undergo similar changes — and probably should.

“Any addition to the park, particularly that [museum] campus, is going to touch off something. There’s a public opinion process this goes through. What comes out on the back end of that could be different than it was going into it,” Bey said. “Soldier Field changed a bit. Not tons. But it lost 5,000 seats. The bowl shrank. There’s glass on the side. But that was a faster-moving train than this is from funding to door-opening. This appears to have a longer run. There’s more opportunity [for change]. But I wouldn’t want anything that looks like what Lucas was forced to propose at the Presidio [in San Francisco], which was very traditional, very safe, very neo-classical. I don’t think that’s the move here.”

Zurich Esposito, executive vice president of the American Institute of Architects, applauded Ma’s concept as “ambitious and provocative.” He looks forward to seeing how it evolves into construction drawings and materials that “relate to the collection” the museum houses.

“Let’s hope the design remains intact in a form as ambitious as it currently is. It’s so unlike anything else ever built in Chicago,” Esposito said.

“I love the idea of a project pushing those envelopes. That’s what we’re known for here in Chicago.”

The Lucas museum and a bridge to Northerly Island would be privately financed, with the exception of free lakefront land and transportation improvements. That means the design controversy needs to be handled as delicately and diplomatically as the mayor’s office tried to do Tuesday.

“Chicago has always been a leader in architectural design and innovation, and the mayor thinks the initial concept design continues that tradition,” said a statement issued by Emanuel’s office that called the musuem a “generous gift that we only see once in a generation.”

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