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Turning McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center into the Lucas Museum could be the boldest adaptive reuse project on the planet

George Lucas has the chance to save a piece of Chicago's modernist architecture that deserves landmark status.

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LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

McCormick Place's Lakeside Center, that long, dark, and glassy building prowling the lake's edge, turned 45 this year. It enters its middle years as an aging but still fine piece of modernist architecture that should be prepped for a spot on the city's landmark rolls and on the National Register of Historic Places.

But the building seems more likely to get the wrecking ball than a bronze plaque. A plan floated last week by the Emanuel administration seeks to raze the hall and build the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, as well as new parkland, on the cleared site.

LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

Star Wars creator George Lucas would pay to tear down the old hall, making the billionaire's construction tab almost $800 million, from demolition of the old building through ribbon-cutting of the new one, museum president Don Bacigalupi told the Tribune.

Given Lakeside Center has needed a financial shot in the arm—and a dramatic new use—for at least 15 years, to spend almost a billion dollars to wreck the building only to put a new one in its palace is like a rescue plane finally coming for a long-lost castaway—and then dropping a bomb on him.

LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

With that much money in play, Lucas could restore Lakeside Center and put the museum in there. The move would give the building new life while repurposing (and even improving) an important piece of Chicago architecture.

Late last year, I got permission to photograph Lakeside Center. I spent a few days with the building's vast spaces, lake views, well-built bones, and the Arie Crown Theater.

LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

Lakeside Center seems too good to just throw away.

Both the Lucas Museum and Lakeside Center are in tough spots now. The museum's original site, a Park District parking lot south of Soldier Field, is being contested by a Friends of the Parks suit that has already delayed construction.

LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

(Full disclosure: I was a member of the mayor's Lucas Museum Task Force that picked the parking lot site two years ago. It's still the right choice. It would bring parkland and a museum to a site that now has the visual appeal of a chunk of thrown concrete—and about as much use, except on the relative few days of the year Soldier Field is in business.)

Meanwhile Lakeside Center seems headed to obsolescence as the convention complex expands west. The old building is sometimes too small to host big shows on its own, and too cavernous for many smaller shows.

LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

Then there's its lakefront site, which was the absolute wrong place to have built a convention center. The "Mistake on the Lake" tag has dogged it and its burned-down predecessor for more than 50 years.

But converting the building into the Lucas Museum could mean radically reshaping and activating landscapes to eliminate the barrier effect. The 19-acre roof is as big as Maggie Daley Park; it could yield additional public green space.

LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

Lakeside Center's main halls lead out onto a concrete outdoor porch with postcard-perfect views of the lake, downtown, and Northerly Island. These large spaces, sheltered by the roof's 75-foot overhangs, could be activated as public spots for alfresco dining or outdoor exhibition.

Lakeside Center's vastness, at 583,000 square feet, is a plus given that Lucas wants to build a 300,000-square-foot museum. But Lucas originally planned a 400,000-square-foot building, then reduced it by 25 percent after public complaints that the museum, especially with its amorphous shape, was just too big. Lakeside Center could return that lost space—with room to grow.

LEE BEY
  • Lee Bey

The National Military Museum in Soesterberg, Netherlands, shows how a restored Lakeside Center could look. Designed by a team led by Dutch architecture firm Kossmann.dejong, the 2014 building is modeled on the Mies van der Rohe-designed New National Gallery in Berlin—just like Lakeside Center.

Turning Lakeside Center into the Lucas Museum could be the boldest adaptive reuse project on the planet. And it would underscore the message of last year's Chicago Architecture Biennial: This city gave architectural modernism to the world and has led the charge when it comes to preserving that legacy. v

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