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Brains behind design of new Soldier Field
The firestorm of controversy over the redesign of Soldier Field, which makes its debut Sept. 29, began with a spark lit during a tennis game on Martha's Vineyard.
In the 1980s, Boston architect Ben Wood found himself on the same tennis court as Michael McCaskey, now chairman of the Chicago Bears. They were brought together by a mutual friend with a home on the island and summer resort off the coast of Massachusetts, Wood recalled in an interview.
McCaskey has long vacationed on Martha's Vineyard. As the Bears pursued plans for a new stadium during the late 1980s, he asked Wood to help him put together a list of stadium designers, the architect said. Yet by the mid-1990s, after those plans went nowhere, Wood and his partner, Carlos Zapata, emerged as the Bears' architects.
In 1995, McCaskey pushed their design for a futuristic, open-air stadium in Gary, Ind., dubbed "Planet Park." It was killed when voters in Indiana rejected a tax hike.
Then, in 2000, the Bears and Chicago Mayor Daley unveiled their equally bold plan to put an asymmetrical, modern seating bowl within the symmetrical, classical confines of Soldier Field. In Chicago and around the nation, it has incited furious arguments.
Supporters have called it a bold blend of old and new, while critics have derided it as a hideous monstrosity. In August, for example, Sports Illustrated termed the stadium the "Eyesore on Lake Shore" and "Acropolis meets Apocalypse."
Wood, 55, and Zapata, 42, make no apologies for stirring Chicago's pot. Throughout history, they say, innovative architecture has provoked controversy before it became accepted, even beloved. "They wanted to tear down the Eiffel Tower after it was built," Wood said.
Still, the wave of negative press has been unusual and unsettling for the pair, whose quirky, award-winning portfolio ranges from an ocean liner-like movie theater in Philadelphia to a concourse at the Miami International Airport. Soldier Field is their first completed football stadium.
"People don't enjoy being criticized unless you're a strange person," said Zapata, who formally became Wood's partner in 1996.
Whatever Chicagoans think about the stadium, many are likely to be surprised that Wood and Zapata are its chief architects.
Early stories about the project identified them as its co-designers, along with Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, who previously had done acclaimed additions to the nearby Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium. But Lohan quickly became the project's public face.
The grandson of the late, great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Lohan spoke at the 2000 press conference unveiling the project. Wood and Zapata said nothing.
When preservationists and parks advocates insisted the design would overwhelm the stadium's historic colonnades and defile Chicago's lakefront, it was Lohan who defended it at public hearings and on television.
"We wanted to say something," Wood said. But the Bears, the mayor's office and the Chicago Park District determined that Lohan would be the spokesman, he said.
In 2001, as the controversy persisted, Lohan's office issued a statement, saying Wood and Zapata largely were responsible for the stadium and Lohan and his firm were the primary shapers of the master plan for the parks and other new features around the stadium.
Building blocks of partnership
As in all partnerships, personal and professional, Wood and Zapata mix contrasting personalities and shared viewpoints.
The earthy Wood, a former Air Force reconnaissance pilot in Europe, is the big-picture, high-concept guy. The quiet but intense Zapata, who was born in Venezuela and immigrated to the U.S. to finish high school, fleshes out the ideas in a vocabulary of slicing lines and angled planes.
"He carries through to the last detail," Wood says about his partner. "I don't have that kind of perseverance."
The two strive, they say, to elevate even the most humble buildings to a higher level of design.
This year, for example, they completed a children's theater built into the bottom of a parking garage in Bethesda, Md., enlivening a building type that typically deadens everything around it. Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post's architecture critic, praised the design for its "appealing, edgy, unconventional spirit."
That spirit also is evident in the renovated Soldier Field, which has an asymmetrical seating bowl, with all the luxury suites and club seats stacked on the eastern side of the field and nothing but general admission seats on the western side. That marks a radical departure from symmetrical stadiums.
The architects say the device has given Chicago the best place in America to watch a pro football game.
"We believe that we have done a very important building," Zapata said.
"We also like to believe that time is a better judge than architecture critics."