“Lots more rabbits and squirrels…”

(Photo: Nary a beast in Lakeshore East?)

The title a beautifully incisive quote from New East Side resident Eric Frost, poobah of the nascent downtown discussion board WindyChat, when asked why his kids prefer to romp in the playground of Daley Bicentennial Plaza instead of in Lakeshore East Park. I asked him over coffee at the Randolph Street Intelligentsia (my beloved local haunt), in an effort to delve deeper into the residential opposition to the Chicago Children’s Museum’s planned move from Navy Pier to Grant Park.

I totally got his answer. Blogging as much as I have over the controversy in recent weeks, I’ve taken more than my fair share of walks through both parks. And while I love the landscape design and occasional rabbit of the Lakeshore East greenspace, I’ve found my soul unexpectedly salved by Daley Bi on more than one occasion. Compared to the rest of Grant Park (and especially its Millennium Park neighbor), it is, indeed, a quieter, almost bucolic environment of leafy trees, orderly promenades, and, as Eric noted, a wildlife-infused playground aimed at a wider range of kids than the toddler park in Lakeshore East.

I can attest that at certain magical times of day, Daley Bicentennial Plaza can be a place of palpable refuge and renewal. It is this unflappable essence that New East Side residents seek to preserve in the face of the museum’s proposed move (not to mention the upcoming renovation of the waterproof membrane separating the park from the parking structure, below).

That’s a wise imperative, and one I believe can be met by the wise design of the proposed new museum structure. Although last week I and others took 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly to task for agreeing with the idea of a Sun-Times reporter that maybe the new museum should be built “in a cave”, that doesn’t mean that a substantially below-grade building is a bad idea. I heartily disagree with Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin’s recent negative assessment of the museum’s plan for just such a subterranean home. On Friday (September 28), Kamin called the plan a “venture into the architecture of the absurd” and accused museum architecture consultant Krueck & Sexton of designing a museum “bereft of natural light”.

That’s quite an assertion. Although Kamin notes that the design includes four skylights and a light well, he paints a picture of a museum drenched in the florid glow of fluorescent bulbs. Kamin, of all Chicagoans, is well aware of the capacity for wise building design and technology to naturally brighten even the darkest of depths (two words: fiber optics), so his accusation here is patently unfair.

It also confuses the issue. Although, as I learned from my interviews with the museum’s admirable administrative staff last month, the museum exists to promote the innate link between play and learning, that does not mean that the museum should be built in the middle of a playing field. Playgrounds are playgrounds, ballfields are ballfields, and museums are museums. After all, every year tens of thousands of Illinois parents happily shuttle their children on visits to the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, and I’ve never heard anyone assert that these vaunted cultural institutions are unworthy places of childhood learning because they are bereft of panoramic glass walls looking out onto Museum Campus or Jackson Park.

Have you?

It seems to me that by simple dint of the Chicago Children’s Museum having to do with, well, children, many people feel free to underestimate its existence as an educational institution–or to simply conflate it with an activity center. Our local newspapers have done it, my local Alderman has done it, and now the city’s top architecture critic has done it. I, however, demur. Kids may need open spaces for kite-flying, but not necessarily in the middle of a museum.

I think it’s wonderful that this controversy has, at the very least, generated many thoughtful suggestions from all corners about potential other (less politically perilous) places for the museum to consider building its new building. But I’m surprised to see how all-encompassing the knee-jerk reactions to the museum’s proposed Grant Park location have become. Given Blair Kamin’s open-minded original response to the very same subterranean museum plan in his review of September 12, I especially question why he’s chosen to bandwagon and attack the museum now. Frankly, I expect more from Blair Kamin than pith.

That’s my line, Blair, thanks.

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