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Spaceship Lucas Lands in Chicago

Given the civic importance of the site, it's difficult to imagine how this vision for "Chicago 2020" won't stir up a lot of very vocal opposition to it. And rightly so.

By Martin C. Pedersen
November 6, 2014

George Lucas landed in Chicago with a thud earlier this week, unveiling the new scheme for his Museum of Narrative Art. Designed by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, the huge, seven-level, 400,000-square-foot building, shaped like an alien land mass, ringed with a rather tacky Space Mountain-inspired top, looks like something cooked up by Bruce McCall (or maybe The Onion). It is, in other words, a parody structure. If it weren’t so absurd, it might be insulting. Given the civic importance of the site, 17 acres of lakefront land, it’s difficult to imagine how this vision for “Chicago 2020,” as it was touted in a press release, won’t stir up a lot of very vocal opposition to it. And rightly so.


This is now the second bad design propagated by the Star Wars creator. He tried to bequeath San Francisco an overblown, Beaux Arts-inspired building, on yet another once-in-a-lifetime site in the Presidio, and the city’s monied class not so politely said, No thanks. It seems as if Lucas, ever the deal-making moviemaker, likes to tailor his pitches to his perceived audience. In San Francisco, this meant offering up a large traditional building that, he thought, would offend the fewest number of people possible; in architecturally adventurous Chicago, apparently, it means something else entirely. I’m not sure what, though.


It’s hard to believe – because the San Francisco scheme was so strangely over-wrought and traditional at the same time – but the Chicago design is actively worse. This is no mean feat and leads to an inescapable conclusion: George Lucas is a challenging design client. An old adage comes to mind here: You’re only as good as your client. How else do you explain the sheer awfulness of these two diametrically opposed schemes? I’ve got to believe that Lucas – a man who has spent a lifetime as a cinematic design client, conjuring up vivid worlds, full of fantastic structures and make believe architecture – doesn’t have strong opinions about the way buildings should look and behave. Maybe Lucas is having difficulty transitioning from fictional worlds to real ones, on real sites, with the forces of gravity and politics applied.


If the sheer folly of this scheme didn’t have serious implications for the lakefront of Chicago, it would be a lot funnier than it already is, because the Lucas-sponsored designs for both cities are, in their own ways, architectural cartoons – caricatures writ large – and coming from the creator of Star Wars seem perfectly consistent and almost endearing. What else would we expect from George Lucas, Architecture Client? And I say this as someone who actually likes the Star Wars movies, thinks the idea for a museum celebrating popular narrative art is quite valid, and would gladly pay admission, at least once, to said museum. 

The problem here, of course, is the proposed site. Chicago’s waterfront is shared and finite, and whatever is built on it – if anything should be build on it at all – should be significantly smaller and rise to a higher level of refinement. This isn’t the movies, it’s architecture. The two disciplines are ruled by drastically different time frames: two hours for a piece of popular entertainment; forever for a civic building located on the lakefront of a major American city. Chicago must now try, as San Francisco reportedly attempted to do, to coax Lucas onto a more appropriate site. I say: give him a mammoth parking lot, surrounded by the most banal buildings imaginable (this shouldn’t be too difficult), and tell him: “Wow us, George. Build something out of Star Wars!”

Martin C. Pedersen, the former executive editor of Metropolis, is a New Orleans-based editor and writer. He is currently collaborating on a book with New Orleans architect Steven Bingler.


(click on pictures to enlarge)

MAD Architects

Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, conceptual rendering