If cutting edge architecture were pleasing to the masses of ordinary folk, then it wouldn’t be cutting edge, would it?
So of course, being a regular Joe, my immediate, visceral reaction to Chinese architect Ma Yansong’s design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, planned for the lakefront, was to sigh, then shake my head in bewildered sorrow, then jump onto Twitter to lay claim to what I hope will be its derisive nickname attached to it in the same way that Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” is affectionately referred to only as “The Bean.”
“I’m not in love with George Lucas’ Space Mountain design,” I tweeted. “It looks like landscape of the planet the UFO landing on Soldier Field comes from.”
A little awkward, that last sentence. But Twitter’s 140-character limit can through you off your stride.
“Space Mountain,” of course, is the cheezy roller coaster at Disney World.
I am not an architecture critic, so figured it is a done deal, if they’re releasing the sketches, and understood that, not being an expert, the wonders of Yansong’s design were perhaps beyond my ken.
So I was gratified to see that the Tribune’s Blair Kamin, who is an architecture critic, and a good one, gave both barrels to the Lost Alp last week, calling the “widespread public revulsion” toward the design understandable because “this cartoonish mountain of a building would be glaringly out of place” on Chicago’s lakefront. Amen.
If you want to see where a building like this belongs, look at the Denver International Airport, a series of peaks not unlike a CGI droid army of the ski slope that George Lucas plans to build downtown. The style was sorta hip 20 years ago, but even located in the middle of a Rocky Mountain nowhere it’s hard to view it kindly. I’ve been through it many time, and my primary thought is: I bet they saved a bundle, putting up a tent, as opposed to constructing an actual roof.
Contemporary architecture can be aesthetic. Look at Jeanne Gang’s sinuous Aqua Tower. Everyone who lays eyes on it knew immediately it was something different, creative, interesting, beautiful. Even Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion bandshell; it might have been wildly out of place, a peeled back tatter of stainless steel permanently flapping in the wind, but it had its own internal energy and, more so, is obviously a Gehry, which allowed us to accept something that otherwise would be mocked, the way a metal baboon designed by Pablo Picasso was given a place of honor in the heart of our city, while an identical baboon designed by Pico Pablono would have been given the bum’s rush. Maybe someday having a Ma Yansong will mean something; but that day is not now. It’s just a white tent with a halo, which looks like an artificial snow cap peak sporting a lenticular cloud.
How to react? Surrender? You can’t win every time. Even a city as noted as Chicago has its share of famous duds. I can’t pass by the salmon and blue monstrosity of the Thompson Center and not comfort myself by imagining Helmut Jahn tarred and feathered and being rolled down State Street in a tumbrel, with mobs lining the streets, shaking pitchforks as he heads to the Daley Center for his show trial, punishment for the aesthetic sins his building imposed.
Or fight? The Friends of the Parks, clinging to the idea that we don’t live in a city where the mayor can do anything he wants, so are pushing the antique viewpoint that building anything on our forever free and clear lakefront is against the law. And Rahm himself was cool to this mountainous mass, leading us to hope that this was just a sketch tossed off on a the napkin, with the actual design of the real building to come later.
Not that anyone’s looking to newspaper columnists for ideas, but given that this whole project is honoring a Saturday afternoon movie cliffhanger space opera —Buck Rogers on steroids—the problem is they’re suddenly putting on modern airs. Why not build something based on Queen Amidala’s Thneed Royal Palace on Naboo, all domes and minarets and Iberian excess? It would fit right in with the Field Museum and the other various Edwardian and Deco relics scattered around the museum campus. And the people who actually go to this thing will have their beloved movie world spread out in front of them, which I thought is the whole point of this; I mean, it isn’t really being built so that the public can view Norman Rockwell paintings without having to travel to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, is it?
If we are stuck with it, we’ll just have to look on the bright side. Suddenly the addition dropped on top of Soldier Field isn’t quite so god awful ugly, by comparison, is it?