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An Army of Critics Assaults the Redesign of Soldier Field

A green-glass-walled structure fits inside the original stadium. The revamp has been the focus of architectural outrage and lawsuits.

January 05, 2003|Eric Slater | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — 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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 11 inches; 420 words Type of Material: Correction
Soldier Field -- A story in Sunday's Section A on the redesign of Soldier Field incorrectly stated the distance between Chicago and Urbana-Champaign, where the Bears played the 2002 season. The distance is about 140 miles, not 60 as reported.

"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.

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