At the start of this year if Chicagoans were readying for a battle over a high-profile museum project, it was Barack Obama’s presidential library. That project—though it’s sure to be contentious, too—will take shape in 2015. In the meantime filmmaker George Lucas has given the city plenty to discuss. After
There are three issues so far: the site, the process, and the design. The site is currently the subject of a lawsuit. As the 17 acres on Burnham Harbor between Soldier Field and McCormick Place is composed of lake infill, erstwhile green space crusaders Friends of the Parks have maintained that any privately financed construction there constitutes a violation of the state’s public trust doctrine. The legitimacy of that claim will be decided in court. Its optics, however, could scarcely be worse: open space advocates are in effect fighting for a surface parking lot used by the Chicago Bears (whose parking deal with the city virtually ensures they’ll benefit one way or another from their potential neighbors).
The battle of the public process surrounding the museum is somewhat of a proxy debate over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s way of doing business. There’s little doubt that his political cache and private sector connections helped the city wheel and deal when the San Francisco proposal fell apart; it irks some that the city seemed ready with a controversial site in mind, basically ensuring some legal wrangling later. And it makes the whole thing feel like a foregone conclusion—an unfortunate sentiment that started off the conceptual design’s public relations campaign with a broken knee. Depending on your political alignment, you likely view Rahm’s modus operandi here, and elsewhere, as either effective leadership or an affront to government transparency.
The design, on the other hand, is somewhat of an incidental casualty in all of this. Irresistible Star Wars puns provided support for the clunky pejoratives and gut-reactions that have characterized much of the media commentary on the subject. Whoever chose to release the few MAD concepts before the Studio Gang–designed landscape work was available deserves some of the blame—while the fringes of these early renderings hint at some exciting human-scale spaces, we’re left with monolithic images that dare an already wary public not to call it out for starchitect object-worship. (The press release refers to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe in what seem like rote platitudes here—not that I’d prefer retro designs, but the incongruity of those designers’ styles with the project as proposed appears to belie the PR team’s commitment to context.)
But there is a lot to love about the initial design, recognizing of course that it is a preliminary concept. We’re told there are myriad landscape improvements (burying a parking lot in favor of a park, essentially), including a new bridge over Burnham Harbor connecting the museum to Studio Gang’s eco-oasis on Northerly Island. There are public spaces throughout the building, including a rooftop observation deck and what appear to be layers of greenery and space-age hardscapes harboring human activity. I’d like to zoom in—what transit connections and other public benefits are possible? Let’s work to bring this design down to earth, instead of hitting hyperdrive to discredit it.