Children's Museum has yet to make case for planned move

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Something essential is missing from the ongoing debate over the Chicago Children's Museum's improved but still-troubling plan to move from Navy Pier to Grant Park: a hard look at the desultory section of the park the museum covets and an expansive vision for remaking this subpar space.

The space, called the Richard J. Daley Bicentennial Plaza, sits east of Millennium Park and is the butt of jokes. Question: "What do you do when you cross Frank Gehry's BP Bridge?" Answer: "You turn around and go back to Millennium Park." No less an architect than Renzo Piano, designer of the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing, has indirectly dissed Daley Bicentennial, saying that Gehry's snaking span journeys from "somewhere to nowhere."

Though Daley Bicentennial is not without merit -- its rigidly symmetrical layout does frame views of Buckingham Fountain, and residents of nearby high-rises prize its quiet ambience as an antidote to Millennium Park's throngs -- its design is as outdated and outmoded as one of the John Travolta leisure suits that were in fashion when Chicago dedicated the 19.5-acre park in 1979.

Ramps leading into the sunken park are too steep for those in wheelchairs, a vestige of the era before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated equal access to public space. The park's pathways direct people southward toward Buckingham Fountain, not eastward toward Lake Michigan, a holdover from the pre-Millennium Park era, when exposed railroad tracks and a surface parking lot raised an impassable barrier between Michigan Avenue and the lake.

Four clusters of hard-surface tennis courts, shortsighted legacies of the 1970s tennis boom, gobble up large chunks of the park's green space, while their green windscreens block views. Exposed concrete air vents for the East Monroe Garage, which lies buried beneath the park, scar vistas throughout the park. Along Monroe Street sits a miniature golf course, which has no business being within shouting distance of the lordly Art Institute.

Fortunately, all this could soon disappear: The rubberized, waterproofing membrane that protects the garage is falling apart and will have to be removed, probably by 2011, lest groundwater from the park's soil seep into the garage and wreak havoc on its concrete decks. The membrane "absolutely has to be fixed," confirms Chicago Park District spokeswoman Jessica Maxey-Faulkner.

Park district officials say that most or all of the park's surface -- grass, shrubs, trees, sidewalks and even the tennis courts -- will be ripped out like an old toupee. The spectacle, whose cost is not yet determined, will reveal just how unnatural this supposedly natural landscape is. Most of Chicago's lakefront, in fact, is man-made, hewn from landfill dumped into the lake.

More important, the revamp of the membrane will create an extraordinary opportunity to remake Daley Bicentennial. And that is why, at first glance, the Children's Museum plan, crafted by Chicago architects Ron Krueck and Mark Sexton, seems appealing: It would put a "there" in this nowhere -- and a visually attractive "there" at that.

From a 20-foot-high glass entry pavilion along Upper Randolph Street, visitors would descend ramps to the 100,000-square-foot, multilevel museum and a Chicago Park District field house that would replace Daley Bicentennial's current, mostly buried field house. Both would be largely underground, taking advantage of the sloping site. Within the park, four sculptural skylights of crystalline glass would pop out of the ground like ice cubes, giving the museum a strong presence when seen from the south and drawing daylight into its lower reaches. Visitors arriving by car could use Upper Randolph's three-level street system and park in the East Monroe Garage.

The key issue is whether this design would undercut and violate historic court rulings mandating that Grant Park, in which Daley Bicentennial sits, be "forever open, clear and free" of any buildings or other obstructions. Prompted by the courageous fight of Chicago business leader Aaron Montgomery Ward at the turn of last century, those rulings have made Grant Park Chicago's front yard, the perfect setting for the cliff of historic skyscrapers behind it. Should the Ward ruling be taken literally as a blanket prohibition against buildings in the park, or is there some wiggle room?

Some buildings work

To be sure, recent experience shows that certain types of buildings can humanize Grant Park. The visitor pavilions around Buckingham Fountain, which house food stands and public restrooms, playfully update the fountain's Beaux-Arts design and have made the vast space around the fountain more livable. The Harris Theater in Millennium Park, meanwhile, has brought new vitality to once-dreary Upper Randolph and is correctly modest, burying everything but its entry pavilion.

A theater can bury itself because its shows go on in the dark. A museum, on the other hand, needs daylight to enliven its exhibits and assertive, look-at-me architecture to bring patrons in the door. Reasonable anywhere else, these imperatives create a tension that is proving exceeding difficult to resolve in a Grant Park governed by the mandate of "forever open, clear and free."

While Krueck & Sexton's latest design is a major improvement on its previous plans, including one that brazenly placed a 32-foot-high, 270-foot-wide facade of faceted glass on the museum's south end (if that wasn't a building, what was?), it still isn't cooked yet. Yes, the new skylights look far less monolithic than the earlier designs. Yes, they might -- with a wink and a nod -- be labeled "sculpture" (as were the curling wisps of stainless steel atop Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion) to get past the "no buildings" Ward rulings.

But the two largest skylights, 32 feet high and roughly 50 feet wide, would be as big as houses. And their internal support structure, which the architects do not show in their renderings, would inevitably obscure views toward the lake from the western edge of Daley Bicentennial Plaza. Why not simply make the skylights 5 or 10 feet high? Then there would be no question that they were really art, not buildings masquerading as art. Because they would enclose space and serve a function, they are likely different from Gehry's curlicues.

While it's easy to get lost in such to-and-fro, the issue, in the end, is all about balancing precedent and progress: To allow one more museum to enter the park (the Art Institute of Chicago was granted an exception before its construction began in 1891) means that others invariably will follow. Who knows whether their designers will be as skilled and sensitive as Krueck & Sexton? The risk is that more museums will clutter the park's magnificent clarity, chipping away at Ward's vision of serene open space. Is that where we want to go in the midst of a major buildup of residential high-rises around the park -- even more buildings around its edges?

The museum deserves credit for going back to the drawing board and improving its plans, but we need to hear from lawyers as well as architects about the legal and urban design implications of this proposal. Would this plan shatter -- or clarify -- the Ward rulings? Would it cross an old line or draw a new one? To date, the museum still hasn't made its case with the clarity this issue demands.

But to, therefore, conclude that the Children's Museum should remain at Navy Pier -- and leave it at that -- would be to hand a dangerous victory to the residents fighting the museum's plans.

These residents, including an informal opposition group that calls itself Friends of Daley Bi, seem to view Daley Bicentennial as a local park, not as the regional park official masters plans say it is and ought to be. One senses the opponents are wrapping themselves in the banner of Ward when their real concern is keeping the hordes of Millennium Park from inundating their little-used sanctum.

Civic vision

Such selfishness perverts the civic vision of Ward and those who gave him a legal leg to stand on, the three commissioners in charge of building a shipping canal for Chicago in the 1830s. In 1836, as they plotted the canal lands, they wrote the following words on the lakefront edge of their map: "Public Ground -- A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or other Obstruction Whatever."

The often-overlooked word in that quotation is "common," as in "New England common."

A common, by definition, is a public space open to everyone and an expression of common values. It is wrong for neighbors to colonize any part of it. There is a difference between giving them a say in how the park develops and granting them veto power. Newly elected downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd), who says he will make up his mind on the children's museum plan by the end of September, needs to keep that distinction in mind as he weighs both that plan and Daley Bicentennial's future.

Given a rare chance to remake a superbly located but underperforming public space, Chicago should proceed boldly, following the example of the invited design competition that created Millennium Park's striking yet serene Lurie Garden. That should happen with -- or without -- the Children's Museum in Daley Bicentennial Plaza.

bkamin@tribune.com

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