By Dave Wischnowsky
The WISCH LIST
As the saying goes in Iowa, “If you build it, they will come.”
But if you don’t in Chicago, will they still?
As the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, George Lucas had nothing to do with that famous line from “Field of Dreams.” But the movie mogul’s museum of dreams along Chicago’s lakefront has everything to do with the subsequent question.
Last week, plans were unveiled for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, which is slated for a controversial 17-acre parcel of land between Soldier Field and McCormick Place that currently is home to surface parking lots. The museum’s initial design by Chinese architect Ma Yansong was highly disappointing as it looked like a futuristic man-made mountain that was plucked from the set of one of Lucas’ sci-fi flicks.
The plans were widely panned by both architecture critics and the public – and for good reason. After all, Chicago already has one space-age mistake along its lakefront with Soldier Field’s UFO-dropped-inside-the-Parthenon look. It hardly needs another right next door. But while Yansong’s design needs major work, I still believe that the Lucas Museum can be a positive for Chicago, and that its planned location along the lakefront makes it all the better.
Others, however, disagree. This week, the Friends of the Park, a Chicago group dedicated to stopping any private development east of Lake Shore Drive, announced that it is filing a federal lawsuit to block the museum’s construction. Previously, the group stated that it prefers to instead see the lots on the proposed museum site converted into parkland.
In a column last spring, I argued against that idea as I found opponents of the Lucas Museum to be missing the forest for the trees. The museum’s presence could significantly improve the lakefront by providing new green space, so it made little sense to me to argue against grass replacing asphalt simply because it would also be home to a museum.
Now that I’ve actually seen the plans for the Lucas Museum, I don’t think it provides nearly enough green space. But I still believe that it’s the museum’s design – and not its location – that needs the overhaul.
This week, however, the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board argued otherwise. Sounding very much like the Friends of the Park, it wrote, “One purpose served by the new Lucas design is to mute a widespread mantra that the proposed site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place is an ugly parking expanse, so anything would be an improvement. We fully agree with ‘ugly.’ But that’s not an invitation to cede lakefront land to one more visual obstruction. Rather, it’s a reason to relocate the parking and create lakefront parkland for future centuries of Chicagoans to enjoy.”
And that leads us back to my original question: If you don’t build the museum, will people still come to the lakefront?
My guess is no. Not many, at least, to a location that’s out of the way and difficult to access. Chicago’s lakefront is its greatest treasure, but the reason people are drawn to it is because of the venues offered alongside it such as Adler Planetarium, Navy Pier and North Avenue Beach.
The reason that so many people trek to the Museum Campus and enjoy the lakefront today is because museums give them compelling reason to go there. And just Northerly Island’s concert venue has now made that beautiful locale an actual destination the Lucas Museum could do the same for its own isolated swath of land.
So I say, build it there. Just don’t make it look like a Death Star.