Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer in the City: The Bride Wore White; the Bagpiper Plaid

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It's the kind of thing you encounter in a city big enough to serve as backdrop to the theater of life.  It began with the sighting of a bride and her groom walking past Quigley, in front of a bag-pied-piper leading the wedding party from an unknown church down Gold Coast streets.

 To a reception at the the Drake . . .

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Mr. Trump, meet Mr. Loew

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And no, there is no Mr. Loews, but there was a Mr. Loew - Marcus Loew, to be exact - the source of all things Loews, co-founding in 1904 the theater chain which went on to create powerhouse movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  When the Tisch family acquired the company in 1969, they killed the possessive apostrophe and Loew's became just plain Loews, which Tisch brothers Laurence and Robert merged into their growing hotel business, forming the conglomerate still known today as Loews Corporation, which sold off the theaters in 1985.

Photographs taken on the evening of July 16th, 2014, the 10th anniversary of the opening of Millennium Park . . .

Gehry's Web - On its 10th Anniversary, How the visual music of Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion binds together Millennium Park and the City around It.

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In the early 1930's, Chicago built a bandshell in Grant Park just north of the Field Museum.  Its scalloped shape was a direct crib of the new Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.  Unlike at The Bowl, set in nature, the curving form of the Grant Park bandshell was a visual counterpoint to the angularity of the skyscrapers in the background.
Grant Park bandsheel c. 1936 photograph by Fred Korth, courtesy Calumet 412
The Grant Park concerts proved enormously popular, but the original “temporary” bandshell endured into the 1970's.  As it literally began to fall apart, there were proposals for a new, more ambitious concert facility in Grant Park, including a spectacular design by Gene Summers that would have been constructed over the Monroe Street garage.  Advocates for an open Grant Park carried the day, however, and the depressingly desultory Petrillo Bandshell at Butler Field was the only thing to make its past the censorious protectors of the park. Another “temporary” facility, it would remain the home of Grant Park concerts for nearly three decades.

It's no small miracle that we didn't wind up with something similarly underwhelming at Millennium Park.  The master plan by Skidmore, Ownings and Merrill followed Chicago's accustomed Beaux Arts-styled park template, with a modest concert facility penci1led in near Randolph Street at the north end of the park.
But in 1997, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley enlisted John Bryan, the CEO of Sara Lee and the city's most effective philanthropic rainmaker, to raise the $30 million in private sector funds that was what Daley thought would be needed to realize his dream of a new park replacing the decrepit north end of Grant Park and gaping ditch of railroad tracks next to it.  Then all hell began to break loose.

Bryan started to go all millennial, seeing the beginning of a new 1,000 years as the perfect opportunity to create a Chicago institution that would be worthy of such an epochal transition.  Soon, in partnership with the Park District's Edward Uhlir, Bryan was dramatically upping the ante on the park's ambitions, and getting Chicago's philanthropic elite to buy into their vision.  Key among them was heiress Cindy Pritzker, who hated, hated, hated the modest, traditional design proposed for the bandshell.

In 1999, it was announced that the Pritzker Foundation would be contributing $15 million for a new Millennium Park concert pavilion to be designed by Frank Gehry.  Gehry's first attempt was a respectfully austere homage to the tradition of Mies van der Rohe  “We started off with a very simply cover which was a very functional shed,” recalled Gehry partner Craig Webb.

Gehry's Chicago patrons, however, were having none of it.  Just two years before, Gehry, pushing 70 and after decades of innovative work,  had exploded onto the world architecture scene with the opening of his Techno-Baroque Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.  Chicago wanted its own version of Bilbao, and the Pritzker Pavilion was going to be it.  The final cost would be somewhere north of $60 million.
Pritzker Pavilion before the ribbon-cutting, opening day July 16, 2014
The design was not entirely new.  In Los Angeles, Gehry had proposed a new design for the deteriorating Hollywood Bowl bandshell, in which billowing metallic forms would envelop the stage like MGM's Leo the Lion's mane.  Transplanted to Chicago, the “mane” became “sails” or “ribbons” making up a “headdress” proscenium.  Its epic sweep of cool, shiny titanium both envelopes and provides counterpoint to its soft, chewy center, the tall stage area faced in warm Douglas fir.

At the time Millennium Park opened ten years ago, Tribune architecture crtic Blair Kamin compared the Pritzker Pavilion to the follies - faux classical ruins - with which the wealthy decorated their estates.  I talked about it as a non-functional “garnish.”  Now I've come to see it as something much more. 

I had written how the bottom half of the proscenium was functional - pushing the sound out over the seats - while the top was purely decorative.  In fact, that's how Uhlir and company got the thing past the height restrictions on buildings in the park.  The proscenium was simply classified a sculpture to circumvent the ban.
The design of the Pritzker Pavilion was Gehry's response to the monotony of the grid.  A modern glass box skyscraper seems less of an expression of the energies of the people working within it, as a cage containing that energy.  “That's how some modernism failed,” Gehry said in his book Gehry Talks.  “when it started getting used by the developers, it became faceless . . . what was missing was human scale.”  By breaking the Pritzker Pavilion into a maelstrom of swirling, interlocking forms, Gehry not only rebels against - and provides counterpoint to - the streetwall of modern skyscrapers along Randolph Street just to the north of the park, but the restless forms the the pavilion's proscenium appear to capture the energy of the music being made on stage and thrust it out into the park.
The Pavilion is also two-faced, delightfully so.  While the side surrounding the stage is all smoothly curving forms, the opposite side, along Randolph Street, is - literally - what's behind the curtain, expressing opening and proudly the structure that makes possible the beautiful forms.  “Some people have objected to the backside,” said Webb, ”but we always imagined it to be a structure with a face and a backside, and the pipe and structure that support the proscenium related in a way back to the trellis.”
The pavilion's back stair becomes a tour-de-force expression of falling into the belly of the great animal.
The Pritzker Pavilion is the visual anchor of Millennium Park.  Wherever you are in the park, it's form is almost always lurking somewhere in your field of vision.  While there's a second formal entrance to the park lining up with Madison Street, it just sort of peters out at the south end of the great lawn.  The great promenade to the north ends at the spectacular forms of the Pritzker Pavilion.  Unlike the park's other two great attractions - Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain, which are located mid-block - the massive proscenium and its support structure conclude a vista directly down Washington Street that's a calling card for the wonders of the park visible all the way west through the Loop.
To the south, it seems to float about the flowers of Millennium Park's Lurie Garden . . .
And to the east, from the site of Michael van Valkenburgh's under-construction Maggie Daley park, it almost seems an extension of the Gehry-designed BP bridge . . .
Even on the horizontal plane, the pavilion marks it territory as king of Millennium Park, both with the great swell of green lawn, and the almost endless sea of red seats that burn into the retina even in the the most frozen midst or winter.
The stage, hibernating behind the massive glass doors, seems almost to breathe in its sleep, a rough beast waiting to be reborn.
As materially dense as is the Pritzker's stage structure, its other half, the great trellis soaring over the seating and the lawn, is a Miesian “almost nothing”that nonetheless contains an entire world.  It  begins in Miesian utility, supporting the hundreds of speakers that make up the outstanding sound system designed by acoustical consultant Rick Talaske .  Gehry rejected the standard approach used at the Petrillo bandshell to unsatisfactory aural results - speakers perched like vultures on a sea of sightline-stealing supports.  “You would have had a yard full of vertical poles with speakers on them like lollipops,” is how Frank Gehry described it, “and that would have been kind of cheesy looking.”
Instead, Gehry drew again on his Hollywood Bowl proposal, for a “distributed sound system” that could recreate a natural soundstage throughout the pavilion and lawn.  Just as the speaker system defines an aural space, the spider's web structure of the trellis redefines a physical space, sprawling 600 feet from stage to back of the lawn, as a contained room, imparting an almost shocking sense of intimacy to what otherwise would appear to be bounded only by distant buildings and the sky.
To underscore the illusion, the slender curving tubes of the trellis terminate in thick, tall metal anchors like shimmering exclamation points.
The trellis not only defines the space in which the audience finds itself, but frames the city around it, most especially the Michigan Avenue streetwall to the east, a landmarked stretch of buildings including everything from the 1890's Chicago Cultural Center, to Art Deco 1920's setback skyscrapers to, in the distance, the tower of Adler and Sullivan's Auditorium Building, the fire-engine red steel-and glass CNA Building and cool blue notched tower of VOA's new Roosevelt University dorm.  The infinite again becomes finite, the city a giant stained glass window leaded in the frame of the trellis.
Much has been written about the interactive aspects of Millennium Park's two great art pieces - the 1,000 faces of the Jaume Plensa's Crown Fountain, and infinitely changing reflections of Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate - of how, unlike the unmoving traditional sculptures carved in stone, they are always changing.  Strangely enough, however, it's Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion that's the most dynamic of it all.  Immobile itself, it radiates an energy of movement that sets the all-too-solid city around it to dance.  Even with an empty stage, the emotions of its music sets ear and eye to delight.

Flashback: From Millennium Park's Opening . . .

Frank Gehry and his new Pritzker bandshell

Frank Gehry, Millenniun Park and the development the Techno-Baroque

Photo-Essay on the Construction of Frank Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion

 After the Hype:  A Millennium Park Post-Mortem

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Celebrating Millennium Park's 10th Anniversary - with the bark off

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This Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of Chicago's Millennium Park.  It's a cause for celebration, and I definitely want to join the party, with multiple posts as the week goes on.  But  while it's considered bad manners to raise touchy subjects on such occasions, I'm going to start by taking up a few of them, as the critics at the Chicago Tribune seem less interested in reasoned assessments than in breathless schoolgirl prose that makes it look like they've taken on a side job writing PR brochures.

In his piece, Millennium Park's impact on summer classical scene, Trib Music critic John Von Rhein  praises (rightly) the acoustics of the Pritzker Pavilion, but can't be bothered to mention the people who designed it.  (For the record, it was Oak Park's Rick Talaske).
Von Rhein also is spot-on in comparing the adventurousness of the Grant Park Music Festival at the Pritzker compared to the increasing marginalization of the CSO presence at Ravinia.  Then, inexplicably, he starts winging off on how “there no longer is a major price differential between a a ticket the CSO at Ravinia and a seat in the reserved section of Pritzker Pavilion”.  He argues that 25 bucks gets you a seat (not very good) in the pavilion at Ravinia, with lawn seats - most of which have a very poor view of the stage - at only $10.00, less than the $100.00 Grant Park charges for the best guaranteed seats for 5 concerts.  Really? 

Von Rhein is willfully blinding himself to the most basic fact of the Grant Park Music Festival.  It's free.  At Ravinia, there are zero free seats, none, zilch, nada. At the Pritzker, the bulk of the seats in the pavilion - and the entire lawn - are free.  It is a free music festival in which some seats are allocated to contributors.  Von Rhein's truly bizarre non-sequiter can only be explained as a sop to Ravinia, a major Trib advertiser.
More egregious is the puffery of Trib architecture critic Blair Kamin.  Despite a seasoning of "and so are they all honourable men" disclaimers, Kamin's piece reads less like as an architectural analysis than a real estate report.  While writers most often don't compose their own headlines, the one attached to Kamin's piece pretty much sums up its perspective: Millennium Park: 10 years old and an economic boom  - Chicago's dazzling urban space also proves a good investment.
Kamin dismisses the massive overruns that took the parks cost to nearly half a billion dollars, comparing the original budget to a Ford Fiesta and the final to a Ferrari.  In fact, the additional costs of the park, many of them traceable to rework of hasty construction rushed along by then Mayor Richard M. Daley's underlings to make the original turn-of-the-century opening date, were a canary-in-the-mine-shaft warning that no one cared to heed, of Daley's burgeoning fiscal mismanagement, which would flower unimpeded in the parking meter fiasco, his corrupt TIF system skimming billions from the city's general tax revenues, the financial sinkhole of destroying the Michael Reese campus in an inept quest for the 2016 Olympics, and the use of gimmicks such as interest-rate swaps that are now threatening to backfire to the tune of $200 million.  The story of Millennium Park shows what made them all possible, but, hey, Millennium Park is great, so we get to stay stupid.  Who wants to look behind the curtain, right?

Kamin quotes one of those risible academic studies (or TIF reports) that starts with a conclusion and then back pedals to assemble data in support, inferring that without Millennium Park, $2.4 billion of development would never have happened, and Chicago itself would have sunk to the bottom of Lake Michigan.  But why stop there?  Shouldn't we also credit Millennium Park for all those new residential towers in River North, Streeterville, and the booming Fulton Market district?

Kamin writes how Millennium Park was “praised as a departure from the 19th century model of parks as nature-inspired refuges from the industrial city's polluted air and packaged streets,” as if that concept were some kind of antiquated relic rather than continuing to be an essential resource for any dense city.
The downside of Millennium Park is the idea that every successful urban park now has to be some sort of manufactured fun factory, which, itself, is a distortion of MP's high level of artistic achievement and sense of balance (see: Lurie Gardens).  Its most immediate influence in Chicago was the way it encouraged Richard M. Daley to follow up MP by trying to ram a new museum into the protected “Open, Clear and Free” park just west of Millennium Park.  If he had not been thwarted, we would be seeing a lot more construction cranes above Grant Park right now, and that wouldn't be a good thing.

Millennium Park sucks in the bodies - nearing 5 million a year - and spins off money, which makes it a media darling, but equally important, I would argue, is the kind of community resource that's to be found in recent neighborhood parks such as Palmisano in Bridgeport or Bartelme on the West side, or the new Maggie Daley Park currently under construction on the site where Daley wanted his museum. Millennium Park had minimal influence on these new parks, and they're all the better for it.
As I wrote just after it opened, the triumph of Millennium Park is founded in “shear consumerist delight”.  Both Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa's contributions arose out of strong aesthetic conceptions, and while the strength of their ideas may well filter down subconsciously to visitors, the fundamental payback is how the public has taken to the Crown Fountain as an urban water park, and to Cloud Gate as a funhouse mirror prophetically custom-made for selfies. 

The triumph of Millennium Park is being plotted on an economic scorecard.  That's only fitting in this, our Age of the Supply Chain, where a value that cannot be monetized or reduced to a mathematical construct has no valid existence.  It's the lie that distorts and hollows out our humanity.  I'm as much a sucker for numbers as the next guy, but I think that what's most interesting about Millennium Park is to be found beyond that lazy and accustomed scorecard, in the realm of sensual experience and emotion, and it's what I hope to address - however imperfectly - in subsequent posts. 

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Heresy: Why Chicago Should Welcome the George Lucas Museum

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Seven years ago, I spent a lot of time writing in opposition to then Mayor Richard M. Daley's shameless blitzkreig to force a new building for the Chicago's Children Museum into a part of Grant Park mandated by law to be kept “Forever Open Clear and Free.”  Thankfully, the combination of strong organizing, mayoral overreach, and an economic crash coupled to the museum's singular ineptitude at fund-raising effectively quashed that plan. I've also written against Argo Tea's appropriation of Connors Park.  I'm not real big on private interests taking over land held in trust for the greater public.

Now another battle over Grant Park has erupted, with most of the same forces that rallied against the Children's Museum re-assembling to oppose another proposed new structure.  This time, however, I seem to be finding myself on the opposite side.  I want to explain why, and to put forward why I think this is a very different case from the one we faced back in 2007. I'll begin with a summary of the story so far, but if you want to skip right to my arguments, click here.

The Chicago Lucas Museum: whirlwind and backlash

A long time ago in a lost world far, far away, I remember my first encounter with Star Wars.  It was at the premiere at the late, lamented Esquire in the Gold Coast, where George Lucas's Wagnerian sci-fi drama, with its John Barry production design oscillating between oppressively sleek and heroically derelict, played out within the high style of the Esquire's ocean-liner Art Deco elegance.

Although initial expectations were low, Star Wars became an immediate box-office sensation, and created the foundation both for the what would become the most successful movie franchise of all time, and for one of America's great personal fortunes.

Director/Producer/Industrial Light and Magician George Lucas is said to be worth $5 billion, and lately he's been struggling to find someone who will accept a large chunk of that wealth to create the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art - a/k/a the “Star Wars” museum.  Lucas has just gone through a bruising four-year negotiation with the Presidio Trust in San Francisco to construct the museum in his home state, only to have the Trust rescind its offer of a site within the historic military base that became a public park in 1994.

Then on the last Wednesday in June, Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed revealed that, after a whirlwind courtship by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lucas had committed at least $700 building to realize his vision in Chicago.
While the Chicago Sun-Times was a lonely voice in support of the museum, opponents quickly circled the wagons.  A major opposing voice was the Chicago Tribune, which is especially ironic, as it was its publisher Robert McCormick, more than anyone else, who sullied the lakefront through his insistent lobbying to commandeer what should have been public park land for his vainglorious pursuit of a convention center he envisioned - correctly - would be his memorial.  That despoiling prize long secured, however, the paper now feels free to shed crocodile tears and sniff George Lucas museum doesn't belong on Chicago's lakefront, with Trib architecture critic Blair Kamin chiming in with Lucas' museum a risk for Chicago's lakefront. 

Over at The Reader, Ben Joravsky declares Chicago Doesn't Have to Rubber-Stamp the Lucas Museum, with Deanna Issacs adding The Lucas museum brings a vanity project to the lakefront. (The Reader demonstrated their commitment to reasoned debate by acompanying Isaac's piece with a Paul John Higgins image of a miniature Death Star looking to be at least 50 million square feet and 60 stories tall not on the Lucas site, but plopped into Lake Michigan like a decaying metallic sea slug.)

Long-time Emanuel political opponents from John Kass to Bob Fioretti see the museum as another club with which to hammer the mayor.  Friends of the Parks has announced its opposition to the project, and has threatened to challenge it in court as a violation of the city's Lakefront Protection Ordinance. (It should be noted that the phrase frequently cited by museum opponents, “in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive” doesn't seem to appear in the actual Ordinance, but in a set of 14 administrative policy criteria.  It should also be mentioned that, until 1994, the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive were east of both Soldier Field and the parking lot intended for the Lucas museum.)

Crain's Chicago Business political analyst Greg Hinz (or at least his headline writer) has painted the opposition as “Elitists on parade”, but that's too easy, a favorite trick of demagogue politicians such as Richard M. Daley,  falsely mis-characterizing the apathy of the broad public as support while dismissing the activity of the inevitably far smaller number who care enough to get involved as suspect and invalid.

The Issues

No, the questions raised by the critics of Lucas Museum deserve answers.  Is it legal?  Shouldn't we fight for every opportunity to keep the lakefront open and clear?  Is it nothing more than a vanity project?  Is Rahm pulling another fast one in favor of  West Coast campaign contributors who have anointed him Mayor Hollywood, Chicago chapter? 

I'll let the courts handle questions of legality, but as to the the other questions, I believe the answers lead to seeing the Lucas Museum as, potentially, a very positive thing for Chicago.  Let me explain why.

1.  The Site
You already know that the site has, up until now, never been anything but several square blocks of asphalt, a surface parking lot best known as the location for hosting tailgate parties before Bears games. It should also be remembered that the Museum Campus came about not as a campaign against development, but as an escape valve to keep the lakefront to the north clear and open.

Chicago patron saint Daniel Burnham fought, with public opinion on his side, to construct the new Field Museum at Congress Street.  He wanted to load up Grant Park with large and imposing Beaux Arts structures, lots of them.  But when Montgomery Ward won his court battle to keep the park free of new buildings, the museum took advantage of the Illinois Central Railroad looking to unload some unused railyards south of Roosevelt to move the Field's location to what would come to be known, with the addition of the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, as the Museum Campus.
In 1924, the massive, colonnaded stadium Soldier Field opened just south of the Field.   in 1960, the original bunker-like McCormick Place opened on the lakefront just a couple blocks south of Soldier Field.  After that building was mercifully put out of its misery by a massive 1967 fire, McCormick Place was was rebuilt on the same site to a far more open and elegant design by Gene Summers.  In 1986, a huge new addition pushed the McCormick Place complex another block north, while in 1997 an even larger building pushed the encroachments nearly two blocks further to the south.

The Lucas Museum's contested territory is the 17 acres that's left, about three blocks between Soldier Field and McCormick Place.  Take the time to look at it, and you'll see not an undiscovered jewel waiting to blossom, but a dangling participle of a space in search of a subject.  Rahm should be given some credit in actually foisting this problem child off on Lucas.
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Not only is the proposed museum site walled in to the north and south by huge lakefront structures, to the east it is all but completely separated from the rest of the city by a double-slum whammy of the industrial Metra Tracks side by side with a Lake Shore Drive just as it turns into a limited access expressway.  The westward vista of the southern third of the parking lot is towards the butt end of the massive McCormick Place North.
Yes, you say, but what about those pristine lake views?  Well, here's the thing.  There aren't any.  What you actually look out at is the boat parking lot that's Burnham Harbor and, beyond it, Northerly Island.
At no point does this site give a clear view of the lake.  You can get a pretty clear idea of the situation from the following cross-section photo, harbor to the left, parking lot to the right . . .
From the north, a museum building will have to be pretty tall to be visible at all.  Grant Park's Sledding Hill keeps it completely out of view . . .

The parking lot has been there as long as I can remember.  There's never been a viable proposal to get rid of it.  And now we're arguing it's better to keep it here indefinitely rather than to take up a moneybag rube's benefactor's offer to get rid of it once and for all with a building awash in new parkland?  What mutant strain of urban planning is this?

II The Museum

The Lucas Museum is being slammed as a “vanity project,”  an overblown shrine housing a substance-free assembly of kitschy personal memorabilia dedicated to a rich guy's ego.  Truth be told, even with a nearly 300 page brief Lucas issued in support of the San Francisco version of the museum, details of exactly what makes up those 500k+ items claimed by the collection remain very sketchy.
John Tenniel, Alice with the White Rabbit for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
courtesy the George Lucas collection
We know that it includes 35,000 books and periodicals, some going back to the 1800's.  We know that it includes works from figurative artists like Maxwell Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and even Norman “What, Me Worry?” Mingo.  (You can see the official sampling of - count-em! - 17 images from the collection here.) We know that the museum's collection of the works of Norman Rockwell contributed to a popular, extensively reviewed exhibition, Telling Stores: Normal Rockwell form the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.  

We know that the collection fed exhibitions such as Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, which had successful runs at 18 different museums, including the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  And we know that Lucas has excelled at creating exactly the kind of exhibition -whether it be Star Wars, Jurassic Park, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse or Jackie O's couture - on which, for better or worse, mainstream cultural institutions have become increasingly dependent for bringing visitors through their doors.  If it's good enough for the MSI, good enough for the Field, why shouldn't it be good enough for us?

The museum's San Francisco pitch book includes this mission statement . . . 
Exhibition and programming content will be diverse and dynamic and will: explore the history of American visual media and related topics and trends; investigate the cultural, creative and social significance of visual media in our world; educate about past and emerging technologies used in visual storytelling mediums; entertain art and film lovers of all ages; and inspire creativity and a great appreciation for the art of storytelling in our society.
 Could this be just a smoke-and-mirrors enticement to get the wolf into the door?  Perhaps.  But I'm intrigued by the uniqueness of the concept.  There are science museums, and fine arts museums, and history museums.  Why not a museum dedicated to storytelling, perhaps the most seminal aspect of human behavior?  Sure, there's sex, but even there, doesn't it often get even better in the retelling?  Forget movies and TV.  What is Facebook and Twitter but places where we create posts telling stories about ourselves in text and pictures?  And ultimately, what is architecture but an exercise in story-telling through structure.   Just this week, Anna Bergren Miller has an interview on the Architect's Newspaper blog with Jahn's Francisco Gonzalez-Pulido about how “contemporary facade design neglects one of the building envelope's foremost responsibilities: storytelling.”

Personally, I've always found deeper meaning in the disturbing parables spun by Hitchcock's Vertigo than in anything I encountered in the George Lucas epics, but there's no denying that the myth-making of the Star Wars saga has resonated - and deeply - with a far larger global audience.  Why is that not important? 

Lucas may not currently have his ducks all in a row, but it strikes me that the subject of storytelling is more than deserving of its own museum.  Just because it starts with a self-congratulatory saga of the storytelling in Star Wars doesn't mean it has to end there.  With a reported $300 million endowment, the scope of the mission has the potential to blossom in important and compelling ways.

III The Architecture
For the San Francisco proposal, Lucas called on Dallas-based architect Raymond R. Kahl's Urban Design Group to come up with one of those scarcely coherent “contextual” mash-ups of feel-good classicism with shopping mall practicality.  Kahl's portfolio contains some capable and interesting work, but if the San Francisco design would engage in its own exercise in storytelling, it would be something along the lines of, “Oh, God, how do we create a functioning building while managing to find a way to give absolutely no challenge or offense to the endless parade of constituencies we have to satisfy to get this thing built.”

In a city where even Mayor Rahm Emanuel extols its architectural virtuosity as a global calling card, something more is required.

The San Francisco iteration of the museum design included a plan by landscape architect Cheryl Barton that drew on a thorough study of native plants and flowers.  A Chicago museum deserves the same level of research and imagination.

IV Trust But Verify

Opponents to the Lucas Museum have stressed that, contrary to our usual Chicago political process, we do not - and should not - rubber stamp this project.  Although I support the museum, there are questions that should be answered before any final approval is given.

1.  Where's the Check?  Lucas has pledged somewhere between $700 million to - in some reports - a cool billion for his museum.   Before we move forward, we need concrete documentation that the assets required to make his dream a reality are placed under the control of the museum.

2.  Where are the Plans?  As I mentioned before, a 289 page report was created to sell San Francisco on signing off on the museum.  Chicago got a one-paragraph press release.  Not enough.  Not by a long shot.  Although many of those pages were padding, the San Francisco document gives a very detailed account of the plans for the museum, its objectives its governance, its building and grounds.  In Chicago, the plan seems securely locked in Rahm's brain.  If no one knows the details, there's nothing to hang objections on, right?  With $700 million in the budget, it's not unreasonable to expect the Lucas Museum to treat Chicago with the same respect it gave to San Francisco, come out from behind Rahm's coattails, and provide us with a detailed and specific public report of its intentions.

3.  Where's the Architect?  Chicago could do worse than the design Kahl came up with for San Francisco.  We often have, but we always wind up hating ourselves in the morning.  There's really only two choices:

a.  continue to sully our reputation with another pathetic historical pastiche


b.  man/woman up to our pretense of still being a city of global architectural importance and enlist our internationally-renowned talent to create a building and park of a level of innovation and boldness that will remind the world that Chicago still has it.

From the San Francisco building design and the scope of his collection, I get the impression that, as bold as he is as a filmmaker, Lucas' personal taste is almost Huntington Hartford-like, veering towards the conventional and conservative, but I'm fairly certain Chicago's great architects, as eloquent as they are talented, can bring him around.

4.  Where's the Curatorial Firepower?  Up until now, Lucas' various touring exhibitions appear to have been under the direction of in-house curator Laela French, who has done a very capable job.  That's fine for a “Star Wars” museum, but if Lucas is serious about moving beyond that to creating a “Museum of Narrative Art” - and we should hold him to that pledge - something more is required.  Before the museum is approved, we should expect the naming of an internationally-credentialed curator and staff of long and varied experience who can deliver the kind of fresh and innovative programming that will lead the museum to scholarly respectability and make good on its ambitious mission.

5.  Where's the Accessibility?   Right now, the Metra/Lake Shore Drive gulch cuts off the Lakefront all the way from Roosevelt Road (12th Street) to 31st street.  The only pedestrian passages to the lake are walking through the McCormick Place complex, or taking an 18th street overpass that seems more about crowd control than efficient access, zig-zagging more than four blocks out of the way just to get across the Metra tracks.   A new, direct bridge, at 18th or Cullerton, needs to be a part of the museum's design.

So what do we have to lose?  An asphalt parking lot on a second-rate site, with zero views of the lake.  What do stand to gain? Over 10 acres of new parkland and increased access to the lakefront promenade.   If it' s done right, maybe a great new building.  A popular and fun museum that will make Chicago a shrine to millions of Star Wars fans that, if we're determined - and a little lucky - evolves to realize its potential of becoming a important cultural institution with a truly unique focus.

There's a line between discernment and snobbery, and I fear that in the case of the Lucas Museum, Chicago's tastemakers are at risk of drowning in their own condescension. Can we take the discussion off auto-pilot and, rather than simply regurgitate the comfortable, accustomed arguments, look and discuss the project and its site with fresh eyes and open minds?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Voyeur on the Roof - What was the Art Institute Thinking? And You?

Say what you will about those blockbuster exhibitions at the Art Institute, the folks behind AIC's marketing have become especially adept at finding imaginative ways to sprinkle their promotions throughout Chicago's cityscape.
click for larger view (recommended)
For Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, the museum's school co-sponsored a competition that resulting in the entire upper reaches of a building along the Kennedy Expressway being transformed into a
giant mural of Chicago landmarks done up in the artist's signature Pop Art style.

For Impressionism Fashion and Modernity, entire double-decker buses were turned into canvases that drew you directly into a painting of turn-of-the-century society at play.
The Art Institute's current blockbuster is Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, running through October 13th.  It was drawing big crowds when I took it in on Saturday.  I recommend it if for nothing else than the experience of walking through the maze-like circuit of galleries in which it has been installed.

To promote the show, Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett has come up with an “Unthink” Magritte campaign that includes a mobile app and links the word to a host of different values in different iterations of the theme.  In addition to use usual appropriation of tour buses and trolleys, there's installations like these at the Chicago Avenue Red Line stop . . .
One variation of the theme, however, has been a little-known secret, not in intention but by design.  We're grateful to our indefatigable correspondent Bob Johnson, who uncovered the secret for us in these photos.
photograph: Bob Johnson
Can you see it?  In the right side of the photo, right next to the Metra tracks?  Let's get a little closer.
photograph: Bob Johnson
The larger part of the roof of the Art Institute's Morton Wing has been turned over to a striking Magritte seaside portrait of a seriously abstracted nude, with the inscription  “Unthink Voyeurism”.  Visible only to people in nearby tall buildings, birds, and passengers in low-flying planes, this has to be one of slyest, most surreal adverts ever.