In Star Wars, producer George Lucas pitted a scrappy band of rebels against a powerful galactic empire bent on building a massive space station at the edge of the galaxy.
But in Chicago, it is Lucas who is being cast as the evil emperor and it is a local civic group, Friends of the Park, that sees itself as the only hope for the galaxy — or America’s third-largest city. Their version of the film’s Death Star bears a far less ominous name: the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, a gift from the producer to the city.
The parks group is suing to halt construction under a 19th-century land usage law. But barring the unexpected, the museum, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, will be among the largest gifts given to an American city for generations when it opens on the glittering shores of Lake Michigan by 2020.
The museum has the backing of nearly every prominent Chicagoan or institution, from Mayor Rahm Emanuel to Lucas’s wife, Mellody Hobson, the president of Chicago-based Ariel Investments.
Hobson says the project is “something that is going to outlast us and hopefully be an educational centre for people from all over the world”. Its ability to attract tourists is a major reason the mayor lobbied hard for the museum after Lucas’s original pitch to the Presidio national park in his hometown, San Francisco, fell through. Though the museum has not released an official price tag, the Chicago project is roughly three times the size of the Bay Area proposal, which Lucas had said would cost him about $300m to build. Lucas said then that he would provide a $400m endowment upon its opening and another $400m upon his death. It was, to paraphrase Luke Skywalker, a big womp rat for the mayor to bullseye.
Emanuel “understands the vision”, Hobson says. “He’s supportive of it and sees what this can mean for Chicago — it’s probably the biggest philanthropic gift to a city since the time of the robber barons.”
The unprecedented nature of the gift is hard to overstate. This is not naming rights on a room at the Met. But it is the “robber” part that strikes opponents, especially when they consider that huge gift notwithstanding, the city has offered a billionaire a 99-year lease on 17 acres of prime lakefront property for $10.
The museum itself could be “a wonderful gift to the city of Chicago”, says Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. “We are just against the location,” which is currently home to a car park but advocates say should be turned into parkland.
“What we find extremely problematic is, even if you think the Lucas Museum should go there, whether Chicagoans want our public lands to be given away to rich people,” she says. Critics have decried the process as a classic backroom Chicago deal. Some have caught a whiff of take-it-or-leave-it noblesse oblige. Public hearings were only held after the site was announced. Lucas ultimately hired a member of the mayor-appointed site-selection committee, architect Jeanne Gang, to design the grounds.
Lucas did not help matters when he told an audience in Chicago last year that after the San Francisco park rejected his proposal, his wife, who has donated to Mayor Emanuel’s campaigns, said, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to the mayor.” Some wondered whether they had discussed it when Emanuel attended the couple’s wedding the year before.
From the outset, there were criticisms of the process and that lease, which can be renewed for an additional 198 years for an extra $20. But it is the museum’s design, by Chinese architect Ma Yansong, which has proved the most controversial.
Depending on whom you ask, the interactive museum, which will house everything from film to comic books to popular and digital art, looks like “an intergalactic zit” or a volcano capped by a toilet seat. It has been unfavourably compared with Jabba the Hutt.
Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, has called it a “vanity project, the Temple of George”. He wrote that the “mountainous blob . . . speaks volumes about all that’s wrong with architecture today: a celebration of object-making at the expense of public space, plus a shameless coddling of the powerful”. He has argued that it should be built inland so as not to “foul” an already crowded stretch of “Chicago’s greatest public space, a nearly 30-mile-long chain of parks and beaches along Lake Michigan” with more congestion.
But the design has its defenders. In a column in the Tribune, architect Frank Gehry compared criticism of the building with complaints that initially greeted his Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He said the design followed in the footsteps of Snøhetta’s Malmo Concert Hall and the flowing work of Zaha Hadid.
Lynn Osmond, president of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, says the design fits a “city of innovation and risk . . . I think this is really pushing that envelope.”
But perhaps the greatest endorsement the museum has received comes from the people whose rejection sent it to Chicago. The public debate over the project pitted old-money San Franciscans who had funded the Presidio’s revitalisation and opposed the museum against tech titans including Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Google’s Eric Schmidt, who backed the project. Ultimately, old money won out. Lucas’s proposed Beaux Arts design did not conform to the trust’s guidelines for the space, though they proposed an alternate site within the park that the museum rejected.
“The Lucas project had a lot going for it — programmatically the board and public were very excited about. The real challenge was around design,” says Joshua Steinberger, chief of strategy for the Presidio Trust. “It was one of these projects . . . that brought out a lot of excitement and we were all disappointed not to get it in the end.”