Soldier Field: Painful Combination of Architecture or Brilliant Upgrade?

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Alternate title: Is a “Sympathetic Addition” Possible and Did Soldier Field Do It?

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Soldier Field, 1982. NPS Photo.

When visiting Chicago last month I stumbled upon Soldier Field. And when I say stumbled upon, I mean it was on the horizon for quite some time and I was drawn in like a moth to light. I am not huge football fan (read: not a football fan) and am very familiar with large colonnades (I’ve been to Greece, after all), but something about the size and the strange amalgamation of styles drew me in from my jog along the lakeshore path. Was my first reaction to like the building? No, not exactly, but I will say I was impressed. Impressed with the scale of its elements. A true football fan might tell you that actually, Soldier Field is on the small side for a football stadium. In fact, some speculate that Chicago made a huge error in the 2001 rebuilding of the field: with a capacity for 63,500 fans, Soldier Field is dwarfed by such venues as the Cowboy’s Stadium, at 103,219 fans, and may never host the Super Bowl. If you’re going to rebuild it, make it big enough for the Super Bowl, right?

The larger question is: did they make the right design decisions when upgrading the field in 2001?

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Soldier Field today. The ever-looming addition looms behind the colonnade.

1. If you change a building so drastically as to verge on offending the original structure, would you have been better off ignoring history and starting from scratch? I am 100% for saving history. The Greek Temple style flanks to Soldier Field are part of its identity and continue to be, remodeling aside. Would they have been better off building a brand new stadium somewhere else? Probably. But of course this poses huge problems like, who would use the historic field? Adaptive reuse of factory buildings is all the rage, but reusing a historic football field is nearly impossible. It can never, for example, offer housing or restaurant space. All that aside, I am impressed they kept the colonnaded sections at all. Were they throwing a bone to us so their wouldn’t be a public outcry? Does it matter if it meant saving the structure’s most important elements?

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Soldier Field, today.

2. Could they have done a better job with the design? The addition is not quite as garish until you look at historic photos. Suddenly, it looks like a modern stadium squeezed into a historic one (which it is). The modern addition seems to pay little attention to the historic colonnades besides to be held back by them like a giant blue bubble propped inside a temple, about to burst free. In the architectural history world, we like to use the term “sympathetic.” It is generally advised that when adding to a historic building, the addition should look different such that it would not itself be confused as historic but meanwhile should be sympathetic to the historic building. In general I love a building that is in communication with its surroundings (and even with the buildings around it). Does the blue bubble addition look different such that it will not be confused as historic? Yes. Does communicate with the colonnades? No. Is it sympathetic? Not at all; if anything it is pushing against its colonnaded confines, trying to break free. Finally: could the architects have drawn a better design? This part is difficult. The stadium obviously had to be larger than its predecessor and would thus tower over the historic stadium by default. Could they have designed something more sympathetic to the original Greek Revival style without looking like a Roman Colosseum knock-off? I’ll let you think about this one.

As you can see, this topic poses more questions the deeper you dig but I think we’ve answered one: Soldier Field is, indeed, a painful combination of architecture. But I, at least, will accept it because I would rather see the colonnade kept than lost. Did Chicago save history at the threat of losing the Super Bowl? They might have been one of few National Landmarks in the athletic word, a Fenway Park of football stadiums… but, squint so the blue addition blends into the sky and you might be able to think of it this way.

Further reading:

Architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, Blair Kamin, followed the story as it was developing in 2001. You can read more from him here.

The National Park Service pulled Soldier Field off the National Register as the new addition rendered it ineligible. If you don’t know much about the National Register, there are two important things here: 1. sometimes no status can save a historic building from drastic changes and demolition (including the National Register) and 2. the National Register follows their list closely and if changes are made that make a building no longer eligible, it will be pulled from the list, no matter whether the shell of the building remains (such a stunning colonnade) and no matter which famous person gave a public address there (Martin Luther King, Jr., among others). Read more from NPS on Soldier Field’s withdrawn designation here.

Quick Credits:

To the Chicago Tribune for stats (found in links) and to the National Park Service for historic photographs of the field. Other photos are my own.

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Solider Field, 1932. Note the clear green space and landscaping that lead from the rear of the Field Museum into the stadium! NPS Photo.
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6 thoughts on “Soldier Field: Painful Combination of Architecture or Brilliant Upgrade?

  1. This reminds me an awful lot of what was done to the Central Library here in Indianapolis — a non-sympathetic structure was tacked onto the back of the original 1917 building. Do a Google image search for “Indianapolis central library” to see. It was roundly criticized when it opened.

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  2. Thanks for the tip, you’re right! They’re very similar: blue glass additions to Classical Revival buildings. I think the worst part is how they dwarf their original buildings!

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