My friend John King, urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, following a trip to Chicago, has written a terrific piece on George Lucas’s efforts to build his Lucas Museum of Narrative Art on 17 acres of Lake Michigan real estate. His tale of two cities is really the story of two distinct and dissimilar public processes: San Francisco’s famously fractious culture of advise-and-dissent, vs. Chicago’s ruthless top-down model, or the Mayor-as-last-and-final-word.
Both processes are dysfunctional in their own ways, one a product of perhaps too much input, the other far too little. In San Francisco Lucas wanted to build a Beaux Arts-inspired building in the Presidio, only to run into opposition from both neighborhood groups and civic leaders. That resulted in the filmmaker taking his huge pot of money ($400 million-plus endowment) and opening negotiations with Chicago, a city with no real connection to either Lucas or the theme of the museum.
No matter: Mayor Rahm Emanuel, smelling tourist dollars and global branding opportunities, opened his heart, checkbook, and city map, dangling a prime (and woefully underutilized) waterfront site for the equivalent of about $1-a-year. In response, Lucus proposed an oversized cartoon, a mammoth, mountainous building-scape, designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects and Chicago-based VOA.
The initial design generated a fair amount of opposition from the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune; from its esteemed Pulitzer Prize winning architecture critic Blair Kamin (who criticized the backroom deal that produced the design and the sheer size of the proposed building); and from a citizen’s group dedicated to protecting the lakefront, who have filed a lawsuit to block it.
A “revised” scheme was presented and, in typical Chicago fashion, it was merely a scaled down version of the first one, offered presumably in response to public input. According to Kamin and King, the lawsuit is likely to fail and the museum is expected to move forward.
So, which model for public input works better? When you’re talking about a large private building on public land, one that will block the views of Lake Michigan for as long as human beings inhabit the city of Chicago, I’d prefer the messy model over the ruthlessly efficient one anytime.
Top image: Courtesy of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art