In 2004, Chicago watched historic Soldier Field become a toilet bowl. In 2019, Union Station will become a self-inked address stamper.
That’s the opinion of Elizabeth Blasius in The Architects Newspaper. “Will a proposed addition turn Chicago’s Union Station into the new Soldier Field?” she wonders. And just about everyone else except the architect’s mother seems to be wondering the same thing. To Blair Kamin, the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, it’s “utterly underwhelming.”
The reference to Soldier Field regards its disastrous 2004 renovation, in which the architect turned its classical colonnade into a landing pad for a vast alien spaceship. (See photo below.) Steven Semes used it on the cover of his masterful Future of the Past.
Edward Keegan, dishing the Union Station proposal as an “insult to Chicago” in Crain’s Chicago, compares it with the giant Norman Foster glass turd (not Keegan’s words) atop the base of the never-completed Hearst Building in New York. Keegan considers that to be the “best example” of this sort of pastiche. What about the Museum of Military History in Dresden, literally stabbed in the back by Daniel Libeskind’s addition? He used the same technique to kill the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It’s really is hard to say which is the worst example of this sort of thing. I agree with Blasius, who describes them as the “new bullying the old.” Her editor at Architects Newspaper inserted a plucky kicker head: “Bully Culture Architecture.”
And yet these architecture critics should all tilt their heads a little and gaze upon this classification of abominations from a different angle.
Why are all these examples of the new bullying the old considered execrable work by critics who normally applaud similar toilet bowls, landing pods and glass turds when they are designed standing on their own without the usual victims? Maybe it has something to do with what Andrés Duany calls the parasitic nature of modern architecture: It cannot rely on its own allure but must intimidate a beautiful old building nearby in order to stand tall.
If you pair an ugly thing with a beautiful thing, isn’t that better than pairing two ugly things? At least in the first instance, however shocking the result, you can still gaze upon the beautiful thing. But I recognize that there are legitimate objections to that suggestion. The desecration involved may simply be too sinful to enjoy even a little bit.
If you take the Miesian glass box atop Union Station, the toilet bowl atop Soldier Field, the glass turd atop the Hearst, and the dagger in the back of the museum, and place them by themselves with no older building to bully, what have you got? Or or try assembling them together for mutual support? What have you got?
The question answers itself. Chicago has not yet absolutely committed itself to this. Maybe, given the widespread disappointment with the proposed addition, Chicago will do what is right. And maybe some architecture critics not too beholden to conventional wisdom will take the hint and apply that thinking more broadly.