Monday, July 07, 2014

The Heresy: Why Chicago Should Welcome the George Lucas Museum

click images for larger view
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.
click for larger view
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.

UPDATE:  Shortly after this post ran, the museum announced that the museum would be designed by architect Ma Yasong, working in collaboration with Jeanne Gang Studio/Gang on site development. The renderings released of the design evoked still another firestorm of opposition to the museum's existence.  You can see al the renderings on the museum's website here.

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?


Unknown said...

25This is one of the very best articles on this subject that I have encountered. Terrific job, AND extremely thought-provoking.22

Anonymous said...

As jack, right on, Lynn... dare I say it reminds me of my lonely defense of the CCM, except in that case we already had a great architect selected...

Matt Maldre said...

Fill in the gap!

Great points about having a museum for humankind's deepest urge: to tell stories.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it safe to say that south of Roosevelt the ordinance doesn't really apply?

Lynn Becker said...

Actually, the definition in the Lakefront Protection Ordinance is pretty broad:

16-4-060 District boundaries.

The Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection District shall be comprised of all of that part of Lake Michigan that lies within the State of Illinois south of the northern limits of the City of Chicago including all harbors, piers, breakwaters and the locks of the Chicago River; all the system of public open space and public ways which comprises the lakefront parks; and all lands contained within the private use zone set forth in the district maps illustrated in Coun. J. 10-24-73, p. 6488, referred to in Section 16-4-080 and on file in the office of the city clerk and made a part hereof.

Anonymous said...

The "Friends of the park" are idiots.

mnmears said...

As long as George Lucas wants to build on public parkland, the Lucas Museum will face strong opposition. And a marina — with boats tied to it — is visually interesting.

“But is second — second choice, second home — really good enough” for George Lucas' museum?

Lucas, Lasseter detailed why #LucasMuseum belongs in SF, pages 10-16. What changed?

Former SF Presidio Trustee Bill Reilly revisits the origins of the @lucasmuseum idea.

George Lucas: SF, The Presidio ... "historically significant to the growth of digital technology." ... George Lucas: “to me, (San Francisco) was the cultural center of my life.”

George Lucas is dealing with the same issues in Chicago that lost him mid-Crissy Field site in SF Presidio. SF Mayor’s site was better as key opponents of other uses for that site were on record supporting Lucas' museum there.

Anonymous said...

I meant practically speaking grant park is where the land has been kept open and free other than the exempt art museum. Why can't this language just be clarified to end at the north end of museum campus.

cynda valle said...

if you want "fresh and innovative" i suggest you look no further than present curator laela french...if you had checked you would have found she has a shoe in each camp; the world of lucas and EQUALLY the contemporary and historical art world. Also i can't imagine how a scholarly dinosaur will interpret the concept of the representational narrative without the scorn and derision characteristic of most of the billions of words devoted to the subject in the last 40 years. yours truely, a representational, narrative artist; cynda valle

Anonymous said...

The Friends of PARKING LOTS should
just shut up and take their NIMBYism
elsewhere, to a Galaxy far far away.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to form a citizens' organization to fight against this plan.

We're going to call it: "Friends of Parking Lot G7".

Anonymous said...

Lucas would do well to put the crown jewels of his collection - the Rockwell paintings - on display at the Art Institute. Build a constituency before you build a museum.

Unknown said...

if you want "fresh and innovative" i suggest you look no further than present curator laela french...if you had checked you would have found she has a shoe in each camp; the world of lucas and EQUALLY the contemporary and historical art world museums.