Proposed Lucas Museum design elicits mixed reactions

“These aren’t the PlANS you’re looking for”

By Lyndsey McKenna

A computer rendering depicts the proposed design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Lucas Museum of Narrative Art/MAD Architects
A computer rendering depicts the proposed design for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. Lucas Museum of Narrative Art/MAD Architects

The Force may be with filmmaker George Lucas, but some Chicagoans aren’t exactly thrilled with what the Force might look like on the city’s lakefront.

Initial designs of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art were released earlier this week to widespread skepticism, including a less-than-enthusiastic reaction from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“I’m glad that the museum will be built here, not in San Francisco,” Emanuel told reporters at a press conference Wednesday. When pressed about the design, he said simply, “It is bold, I think we can say that.”

Blair Kamin, architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, knows what the mayor was actually saying. “It’s pretty clear that he didn’t embrace it,” Kamin said. “I think that leaves room for changes.”

Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who is challenging Emanuel in February’s mayoral election, had stronger words for the proposed design. “It looks like a palace for Jabba the Hutt,” he said.

The Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will house the personal collection of George Lucas, the creative force behind the famed Indiana Jones and Star Wars series of films. It will feature popular art with a particular focus on filmmaking and cinematic art.

Beijing-born architect Ma Yansong was commissioned by Lucas to design the museum. Yansong, who once interned for the legendary architect Chicago Helmut Jahn, is the founder of MAD Architects. Though much of his work is located in China, the 39-year-old is well known for the Absolute Towers, two towers in Ontario that each spiral 209 degrees from the base of the building to the top. This marks the first large-scale commission for a Chinese architect in the city of Chicago.

In renderings, the modern stone structure resembles a white mountain, and its tallest point will feature an observation deck with 360-degree views that can best be described as a spaceship. The proposed height is about 110 feet tall; neighboring Soldier Field stands about 151 feet tall, and the Field Museum is slightly taller at around 113 feet tall.

The Lucas Museum design was inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, according to Yansong’s firm. Lee Bey, special projects manager at the University of Chicago and member of the city’s Lucas Museum task force, said the inspiration may be more theoretical than explicit. “Does it look like van der Rohe or Wright? No.”

In June, Lucas selected Chicago as the future home of the museum. Lucas is married to Chicago native Mellody Hobson, president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments. In June 2013, the couple hosted a high-profile wedding reception at Promontory Point in Hyde Park attended by celebrities such as the late Robin Williams and Al Roker. Prince performed backed by a 20-person orchestra.

The museum, slated to open in 2018, will be built on 17 acres of the Museum Campus. That area is currently the site of two parking lots between Soldier Field and McCormick Place. Museum Campus is also home to the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium, institutions built in a more classical style.

“People aren’t pushing for a classical design, which speaks to the sophistication of Chicago architecture fans,” said Bey. “They aren’t saying it doesn’t look like a museum, they’re just saying they aren’t the digging the site.”

The sun sets on the Chicago skyline, as viewed from the Museum Campus. Lyndsey McKenna/Medill
The sun sets on the Chicago skyline, as viewed from the Museum Campus. Lyndsey McKenna/Medill

The proposed site itself has drawn sharp criticism, most prominently from Friends of the Park, a nonprofit advocacy organization that seeks to preserve, protect and improve Chicago’s parks and preserves.

In a statement, Cassandra Francis, president of Friends of the Parks, said, “While we are very supportive of the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum coming to Chicago, we oppose its siting on lakefront public open space.”

Similarly, some Chicago Bears fans have expressed concerns that the location may displace some tailgaters who routinely set up camp in the field’s south parking lot during home games.

In June, the mayor addressed those concerns in a news conference. He said, “On the times in which there are games there, we will work through the issues of tailgating so you can both have a museum and open land and tailgating.

While debate will likely continue, initial reaction to the Lucas Museum design proves that the world, and perhaps galaxies far, far away are keenly interested in the outcome