The new Soldier Field, the face that launched a thousand quips ("Monstrosity of the Midway," "Eyesore on Lake Shore," "Mistake by the Lake"), is almost here -- a skillful, sometimes brilliant and ultimately jarring failure.
With its spaceship-like seating bowl crammed between the stadium's legendary rows of Doric columns, the stadium is Klingon meets Parthenon, an architectural close encounter of the worst kind.
The $632 million project, which opens Sept. 29 and is chiefly funded by city hotel tax dollars, is a risky exercise in architectural invention, the first time a modern, asymmetrical seating bowl has been wedged within a historic football stadium. Unfortunately, when large-scale experiments in steel and glass go awry, the embarrassing results are impossible to hide, particularly when they've been plunked in a city's front yard.
The inside of the revamped stadium is a superb synthesis of structural gymnastics and stylized athleticism, one that is sure to give Bears fans -- at least those who can afford to pay anywhere from $45 for a corner grandstand seat to a $300,000 annual fee for a 20-seat luxury suite on the 50-yard line -- an intimate view of the action, perhaps the best in pro football.
Compared with the old Soldier Field, which was long on tradition and short on amenities, the new place is a pigskin palace, with twice as many concession stands as its predecessor and more than twice as many toilets. Though it has some possible functional problems, fans are likely to rave about it.
Trouble is, the opulent interior and the outlandish "Invasion of the Stadium Snatchers" exterior are part of the same, ill-considered package. And the exterior is a big-time poke in the eye, especially the bulbous west grandstand that weighs down brutally on Soldier Field's once-proud columns, as if William "Refrigerator" Perry had plunked his ample haunches atop a picket fence.
Anywhere else in Chicago, this failing might be forgivable. On the lakefront -- the brightest jewel in Chicago's crown, where the environment as a whole matters far more than any single building -- it is inexcusable.
The great lakefront museums are low-slung and handsomely proportioned, in aesthetic harmony with their shoreline setting and one other. By civic tradition, they don't have unsightly backs but are "buildings in the round" that delight the eye from all angles with features like the caryatids, the sculpted female figures that serve as supporting columns on the west side of the Museum of Science and Industry.
That tradition used to be observed at Soldier Field, which architects Holabird and Roche designed to be compatible with the monumental, Greek temple facade of the neighboring Field Museum. The stadium, which opened in 1924, was envisioned as a grand civic gathering place, a venue for everything from track meets to religious meetings. Lest we forget, its chief role was to memorialize the 120,144 U.S. soldiers killed in World War I.
Yet now, with the aid and comfort of Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, the Bears, the privately owned professional football team that has been Soldier Field's chief tenant since 1971, has satisfied its craving for as many profitable seats as possible along the sidelines.
Instead of having just 40 percent of the seats there, as in the old Soldier Field, the new model has 60 percent.
That fan-friendly feature leads directly to this lakefront-unfriendly nightmare: The new seating bowl rises above and even directly over the old columns -- tall, bloated and blatantly out of character.
The exercise in shoehorn styling marks a telling reversal, one that speaks volumes about how Chicago, the city that works, really works: The architecture of the few usurps the lakefront of the many. The new stadium offers terrific sightlines to a privileged group of football fans and a horrific eyesore to the multitudes who pass by it every day.
That is a terrible trade-off, even considering the additional benefits the stadium brings -- 17 acres of still-unfinished shoreline green space; an underground 2,500-spot parking garage that will make it easier to get to the Museum Campus, and the opportunity for the public to walk within the stadium's colonnades for the first time in decades.
Ironically, those very amenities helped persuade Daley, the great beautifier, to back a design that uglifies his city's shoreline. The Bears' high-minded concept of a "stadium in a park" turned out to be a Trojan horse, concealing the impending invasion of the towering structure that is nearly 151 feet tall, a few feet taller than U.S. Cellular Field, and is so silly-looking that it has replaced the cold and characterless baseball stadium as the butt of jokes.
The stadium, the only one in pro football that places all the luxury suites and club seats on one side of the field, has been likened, for good reason, to a crashed spaceship.
On its eastern side, a curving wall of bright green glass sweeps in back of the old columns and shelters the concourses leading to the premium seats. To the west, a huge silvery saucer, covered with stainless steel and glass, soars above and directly over the columns. It forms the back of the grandstand. Jagged openings between the bowl's two parts add to the impression that a UFO smashed to the ground along South Lake Shore Drive. Instead of a single seating bowl, there are tiers of seats on each side of the field, with an overhanging four-level stack of luxury suites on the east side.
Many Chicagoans will be surprised to learn that the strange structure was not designed solely by Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, who was its chief defender as arguments raged about the design, but was mainly shaped by two Boston architects as part of a joint venture with Lohan -- the Venezuelan-born Carlos Zapata and his partner, Ben Wood, who met Bears Chairman Michael McCaskey playing tennis on Martha's Vineyard in the 1980s.
Lohan, the grandson of the great modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and a talented architect in his own right, actually was the principal shaper of the new parkland and other features around the stadium. But, according to Wood, the political triumvirate behind the stadium -- the Bears, City Hall and the Chicago Park District -- insisted that Lohan be the spokesman. And speak he did.
At the news conference in 2000 unveiling the design, he declared that the new Soldier Field sought to be a bold mix of old and new, where "the new is not stifled by historic limitations."
It hasn't worked out that way.
The old severely crowds the new at Soldier Field, which is why the renovated stadium is a head-scratching oddity, with 5,444 fewer seats than before.
Because they were building in the restricted space between the colonnades, the Bears and the Park District, the stadium's landlord, were forced to reduce the stadium's capacity to 61,500 from 66,944, the figure the team used before the interior was gutted.
That means there's less room at the inn for "Grabowski" fans of average means -- a whole lot less when you factor in the new stadium's profusion of premium-priced seats, including 8,600 premium "club" seats compared with none before. You could call the place "Fat Cat Field."
But here's the bigger bugaboo: The Bears, who play in the second-largest market in the National Football League, now hold the dubious distinction of having the league's second-smallest stadium, larger only than the 55,506-seat RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
The itsy-bitsiness of Soldier Field makes it highly unlikely that Chicago will ever host the Super Bowl, even though the NFL has begun considering cold-weather cities, such as New York, for that distinction. The problem: For a stadium to go Super, NFL guidelines say it should have a capacity of 70,000 permanent seats.
Wood and Zapata profess to be surprised that this, their first football stadium, has raised such a ruckus. In the court of public opinion, they've adopted what can be called the "Eiffel Tower Defense," recalling that Gustave Eiffel's iron giant sparked passionate protests, too, when it made its debut in 1889.
Just let the public step inside, they and their clients are saying, and all the objections to the new Soldier Field will melt away.
The interior of the stadium is indeed seductive, an extraordinary mix of intimacy and artistry, though, in the end, it does not excuse the visual carnage outside.
Tiers of seats in tasteful Bear blue wrap tightly around the field. In the stadium's southern end, where the new seating bowl rises within the old Soldier Field, you can see how much closer to the field the new seats are. Even the higher seats in the grandstand offer better vantage points than their counterparts elsewhere in the league, and because of the cracks in the seating bowl, they reward fans with views of Navy Pier and the south lakefront.
Here, at least, the architects have turned the constraint of building within the colonnades to their advantage: They have dramatically compressed the seating bowl, using the space-saving device of cantilevers that extend one tier of seats over another.
As a result, the tiers hug the field rather than step far backward from it as they do at U.S. Cellular Field, which is notorious for its up-in-the-clouds upper deck. With fans so close to the action, the Bears may have a stronger-than-normal home-field advantage.
As good as this arrangement is, the architects make it better with their sleek, expressive design of slicing lines and angled planes.
Though many football stadiums are as brutal as parking garages, the interior of this one boasts a combination of power and grace worthy of Walter Payton. At the north and south ends of the stadium, for example, cantilevered video boards continue the sweeping curve of the glass-walled luxury suites, stretching outward like a receiver extending his arms to snare a pass.
There is more architectural athleticism in the suites, where tilting, floor-to-ceiling glass walls open up excellent views of the field and floor-to-ceiling glass partitions create the illusion that each tier of skyboxes is a single, continuously curving space -- a great fishbowl in the sky.
The curving, glassed-in concourses leading to the suites offer another superb viewing platform, with so-close-you-can-touch-it views of the colonnades. Here, at least, the conversation between past and present is conducted with respect.
Still, the interior has trouble spots, and they extend beyond the fact that spectators no longer will be able to see the colonnades from within the seating bowl -- a lost feature that constitutes another reason, besides the overshadowed columns, that the federal government should carry out its threat, made three years ago, to strip the stadium of its National Historic Landmark status.
The highest point of the west grandstand has 37 uninterrupted and intimidating rows of seats, eight more than at U.S. Cellular. Even though the slope is less steep than the Cell's, one has to wonder whether a fan in row 37, having quaffed a few beers, will look forward to the long trek to one of the stadium's many restrooms.
Another question: Will corporate types who paid big bucks to sit in the skyboxes be upset because those striking glass partitions create an unusual lack of privacy?
More important, there is something strikingly undemocratic about the fact that the most affluent fans are on one side of the field and fans of more modest means are on the other.
Stadiums are supposed to be like parks, giving people of various classes a chance to rub shoulders, but the new Soldier Field extends the social stratification present in all American stadiums to a new and distressing extreme. Inevitably, there will be frigid and windy winter days when bundled-up fans in the grandstand will look across the field to see, in the suites, the masters of the universe lounging comfortably in shirtsleeves.
Nothing could be further from the social contract once implied by Soldier Field's "we're all in the same bowl" design.
What is truly objectionable about the seating bowl, however, is this: It is the chief reason the stadium, when seen from the outside, is such a jolting, alien presence.
Baseball parks are more easily integrated with their surroundings because their outfield contours can vary. The classic example is Boston's Fenway Park, where the streets knifing past the ballpark create its hard-edged geometry, especially the clifflike left field wall known as the "Green Monster."
But a football field's dimensions are fixed, and its seating bowl, even one that is asymmetrical, is essentially a massive tub -- high along the field because that is the best place to watch a game and lower in the end zones because fewer people want to sit there.
No matter how you slice it, it's still going to look huge, especially if it stands in contrast to something else, like the colonnades. And that gets to the heart of the problem here: A collision of scales in which the new overwhelms the old.
Now that the stadium has been finished, actually, the new doesn't look so hot, either. In contrast to the architects' drawings, in which the west grandstand was portrayed as a benign spaceship, sleek and floating, it is, as built, a looming, leaden zeppelin that would blight the lakefront even if the Doric columns had been torn down, as some voices are now suggesting.
But ultimately, of course, it is the relationship of one thing to another that matters here, and that relationship is just terrible.
Measured by a literal yardstick, the west grandstand is shorter than its counterparts in other NFL stadiums. Measured in relationship to the colonnades and to the memory of the way they once ruled the roost at Soldier Field, however, it is an invasive, supersize monster.
The unrelieved, impenetrable mass of the bowl presses down on the colonnades, as if it were about to crush them. The bowl looks like a UFO spinning out of control, violating both the airspace above the columns and the stadium's profile.
For all it has been dressed up to be a facade, the bowl is still a backside, a pig perfumed.
Even with the addition of the stadium's new memorial features -- a restored Doughboy Statue in the south-end concourse and a memorial wall of dark granite that leads into the new Soldier Field from the north -- the west grandstand diminishes both the colonnades and the sacrifice of the soldiers they symbolized.
Wood and Zapata are fond of comparing their design to I.M. Pei's once-hated, now-beloved glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre. But there is a difference between that delicate, jewel-like insertion, which maintains the integrity of the Louvre, and this grotesque juxtaposition, which demonstrates that a re-use scheme can save the most important feature of a building and still destroy its essence.
Though far less intrusive and even appealing when viewed from the lake or from the new parkland to its east, the east side of the stadium is jarring when seen from other angles, which accentuate its jumbo proportions.
It could be a 15-story office building that has been warped and jammed into Soldier Field, a skyscraper laid on its side, or a glass-covered cruise ship that docked within the stadium. Whatever the metaphor, its size and garish green glass walls make it comically extra-large.
Architecture is ultimately a series of trade-offs and here just about all of them have been settled in favor of the interior, not the exterior; the Bears and their fans, not Chicago and all of its people.
Keep the seating bowl where it is and you get visual cacophony.
Lower the seating bowl below the water table, as historic preservationists proposed, and you lose those fabulous views from the concourses and you'll have to spend millions of dollars building a concrete bathtub that would keep the stadium dry. These unhappy trade-offs result directly from the too-tight site.
It would have been better to apply Wood and Zapata's considerable talents elsewhere -- say, the parking lots north of U.S. Cellular -- and let the public money being spent on the stadium spark investment in the neighborhoods, as it will not do here.
What to do, then, with Soldier Field? Ask Lohan.
His 1988 master plan called for turning the stadium into a site for city festivals and other events, which made eminent sense because it would have corrected the problem that occurs every time the Bears play a Sunday home game: When the team's fans swarm the lakefront, they effectively shut down the Field and the other museums. In other words, the plan would have created a Soldier Field that didn't conflict with its surroundings, either functionally or aesthetically.
For their part, Wood and Zapata make no apologies.
They defend their placement of the curving glass wall on the stadium's eastern side because that is where the new parkland is, and they wanted that side of the stadium to be softer and more demure. Eventually, they predict, people will come to think of Soldier Field as a stadium in a park, not as a stadium along a highway.
That seems as likely as this year's 0-2 Bears team making it to the Super Bowl.
According to the Illinois Department of Transportation, 106,700 vehicles a day travel the stretch of Lake Shore Drive that passes Soldier Field. If you apply the rule of thumb used by traffic experts -- that every vehicle has 1.5 occupants -- then 160,050 people a day drive by the stadium's most prominent (and ugly) public face.
Because the Bears play only 10 times a year at Soldier Field (eight regular-season games and two exhibition games), more people will pass by the stadium in four days than will go to football games there in an entire season.
Even when Soldier Field is used for concerts, movies, pro soccer and other public events, the balance is unlikely to tip in favor of those who elect to experience the fetching inside of the stadium versus those who have no choice but to drive by the botched piece of civic architecture.
Perhaps no architect could have designed his or her way out of this box.
But we'll never know about alternative designs, in contrast to New York City, where, after the public outrage that greeted the first set of ground zero plans, redevelopment authorities mounted the competition that produced Daniel Libeskind's brilliant, now beleaguered, master plan for the Lower Manhattan site.
Chicagoans weren't permitted to see real choices because Daley rammed through the Illinois General Assembly in two weeks the public financing package for the stadium, with about two-thirds of the deal financed by the city's hotel tax and the rest coming from the NFL and Bears. Then he went into blitz mode, dispatching aides to attack any and all alternatives.
The mayor isn't the only one to blame.
The other prime political movers behind this project were former governors Ryan and James Thompson, who led the high-powered team of lobbyists that sold the deal to legislators. Thompson now has his indelible mark on three of Chicago's most prominent eyesores, the other two of which -- the James R. Thompson Center (the former State of Illinois Center) and U.S. Cellular Field -- he sprung on us as governor.
In the end, after years of debating the Bears stadium issue, Chicago squandered its tradition of visionary urban planning for a politically expedient deal that produced predictable, desultory results:
Good architects did bad things.
Soldier Field, which originally was a wonderful sight and a terrible place to watch a game, became a terrible sight and a wonderful place to watch a game.
The lakefront, which demands optimal solutions, was saddled with a hideous compromise.
With a mayor who loves greenery and trees running the political interference, a privately owned, professional football team ran roughshod over the people's greatest public space.
On Oct. 24 and 25, just in time for Halloween, the Chicago Park District plans to turn Soldier Field into an outdoor movie theater, opening the stadium to the public and using its video boards to show horror movies such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."
That's nice, but those nights at the movies should be seen for what they are: The latest move in a public relations campaign of photo opportunities and special advertising sections that is designed to polish the stadium's already-tarnished image.
Here's one question about the silly celluloid spectacle: Will the Park District have the guts to flash on the videoboards the real horror show -- the one that might be titled "The Creature that Quashed Soldier Field"?Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times