An Army of Critics Assaults the Redesign of Soldier Field
The cheap seats rise to the west, dwarfing the regal Doric colonnade. The high-priced skyboxes and club seats line up on the east, forming a wall of green glass that’s 15 feet shorter than the opposing side. The emerging stadium along the Lake Michigan shoreline is cockeyed, a mix of artistic styles and unlike any other in the country.
When it’s finished in the fall, it won’t even look much like what it is, famed Soldier Field -- at least not the Soldier Field that has stood for 79 years, the one football fans have long known as the stately, gray, often-frozen home of the Chicago Bears.
The critics, both professional and amateur, have assembled like linebackers, decrying the reconstruction and trying unsuccessfully to bring it down through lawsuits.
“The original architects gave it a very low-slung shape, which reflected the horizontal lines of the lake,” said Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic. “The new bowl is this enormous vertical thing just stuck inside the old stadium. Imagine a bloated enormous starship Enterprise crashing into the middle of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. That’s what it looks like, like a giant spaceship just crashed into the lakefront.”
“That’s Soldier Field?” a visitor to the city said as he passed by the construction site recently. “Are you sure?”
The city, which owns the stadium, and the architects have gone to great lengths to preserve what they can of the National Historic Landmark while reminding naysayers that they can’t have it both ways: There can be either a decrepit, unusable Soldier Field that would probably be knocked down eventually, or a refurbished one for a new sports world.
The $632-million project is part of a restoration of the city’s lakefront and designed to tie in with its Museum Campus, a sprawling park that includes the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium.
“The stadium is going to be terrific, much improved over the old structure,” said Barnaby Dinges, a spokesman for the project, as he led a group of college students on a tour of the site recently. “Let us finish building it before you criticize it.”
Many critics, though, say they should have been asked their opinions before building began.
Just as Angelenos have struggled for years over what to do with Memorial Coliseum, Chicagoans fought over what to do about Soldier Field. They had only to look a few miles north and a few miles south to see the difference between a successful design and a failed one.
On the city’s North Side, the perennially faltering Chicago Cubs often sell out their home park, the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field, in part because the 89-year-old brick stadium is intimate and almost magically alluring. On the South Side, the White Sox struggle endlessly to draw fans to Comiskey Park, in part because the stadium feels unwelcoming and cold, people complain, and the game remote. Comiskey was built just 12 years ago and is undergoing its second wave of renovations.
For more than two decades, the owner of the Bears, the McCaskey family, and government officials talked about building a new stadium in the suburbs of Hoffman Estates, in Elk Grove Village, even across the state line in Gary, Ind. Soldier Field had no high-priced club seats. Fans who grew tired of restroom lines took to urinating in sinks and behind pillars. Concession stands were few and far between, and work crews continually labored to maintain the crumbling structure. The McCaskeys threatened repeatedly to take their team and leave town.
In late 2000, after years of wrangling, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and Gov. George Ryan -- both talented backroom deal makers -- teamed up and pushed the renovation plan through the state Assembly in two weeks, with very little public input. Almost before the city understood that it was for real, the team moved out -- playing its losing 2002 season at the University of Illinois stadium in Champaign-Urbana 60 miles to the south -- and the construction crews moved in.
After a year of work, the new Soldier Field is now taking shape.
The design, by Boston firm Wood & Zapata Inc., retains the colonnades, the most recognizable feature of the stadium built in 1924. But it substantially alters the fundamental form by placing a giant, tilted bowl of seats inside the old walls. Both sides of the new bowl rise well above the top of the old structure, one noticeably higher than the other.
When finished, the smooth, arcing green-glass wall of the new, postmodern portion will thrust up and out from both sides of the original structure’s Greek-influenced concrete. From inside, gaps at each end allow sweeping views of the north and south ends of the city, and fans in some of the cheapest seats will have lake views.
The new stadium will have about 61,500 seats, more than 5,400 fewer than the original, but it will have 15 more luxury suites and 8,600 club seats.
Architect Benjamin Wood’s asymmetrical design solved the problem of expanding the stadium without demolishing the existing structure.
“In this case we had to think inside the box, literally,” Wood said. “We had to come up with something innovative. We had no choice. But I think if anything, it’s an inspired piece of design, not a compromise. On the first game day, the doubts will be gone. I’m worried about how the Bears will play, not the design of our stadium.”
The team is putting up $200 million for the project, with a 2% hotel room tax covering the rest. Many have criticized the project as a private, moneymaking enterprise on lakefront property that is supposed to be for public use, though last summer a judge tossed out a lawsuit seeking to halt construction on those grounds. Court records show the Bears expect to nearly triple their profit, to $33.6 million, during the first season in the retooled stadium.
To help the stadium blend in with the lakefront and nearby Museum Campus, workers are turning 19 acres of mostly parking lots into about 17 acres of green space, including a 30-foot-high sledding hill -- a near-mountain by Midwest standards. Much of the parking is moving underground.
“In recent years, Soldier Field did not live up to its early life as a grand gathering place,” said Lee Bey, head of the mayor’s planning and design office and a former architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. “Yes, it looks different than any other stadium; Chicagoans tend to do things differently. But there are things here that will be replicated around the country.”
Official proponents of the transformation are not alone in their praise. An informal query of nearly a dozen people strolling at Museum Campus on a cold, clear day found more than half liked the unfinished product.
“It’s beautiful. Look at it,” said one. “It can’t get worse than the old one,” another said.
Still, the project has faced endless criticism. The National Park Service has said the changes might prompt it to revoke the stadium’s prized listing as a National Historic Landmark.
The editorial board of the Chicago Tribune, once the most powerful proponent of lakeshore development, has lambasted every aspect of the project.
Kamin, too, finds little to like about it. Perhaps nothing irks him more, though, than what he describes as its crashed-spaceship geometry.
Mohammad Saket, a 36-year-old cabdriver, said he didn’t know Kamin or his work. But he likes the new stadium.
“It’s very pretty,” he said, pointing to the mass of glass. “It looks like a UFO.”