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Chicago-based architect Jeanne Gang, shown in front of the Aqua Tower her firm designed, will be part of the design team for the new museum filmmaker George Lucas wants to build along Lake Michigan. | Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Team of architects for Lucas museum includes Aqua Tower designer

One is known for a pair of sleek, curvy Canadian skyscrapers nicknamed after an American sex symbol.

The other is one of Chicago’s own architectural stars, known for her wavy 82-story Aqua Tower on the Near East Side.

So when he learned that Beijing-based Ma Yansong and Chicago’s Jeanne Gang would team up to design George Lucas’ new interactive lakefront museum, Dirk Denison had one thought: 



These are the “Star Wars” creator’s architects. 

“When you look back to the films that he’s made and his contributions to art culture, he was always very, very forward thinking architecturally,” said Denison, a professor at IIT College of Architecture and founder of Dirk Denison Architects.

Ma is the founder of MAD Architects, which has been chosen as the principal designer of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, museum officials announced Monday. He’ll be responsible for the design and overall concept of the building, they said.

VOA Associates, also based in Chicago, will serve as the executive architect and implement Ma’s design, according to the museum. In a written statement, Lucas said he is “thrilled with the architectural team’s vision for the building and the surrounding green space,” but so far no renderings or sketches of that vision have been released.

Ma’s work includes the Absolute Towers in Canada — nicknamed the “Marilyn Monroe” towers for their voluptuous curves. The Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat awarded them the Best Tall Building Americas prize in 2012.

Jonathan Solomon, incoming director of the architecture department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said Ma belongs to a new generation of Chinese architects who embrace contemporary design but are sensitive to the context in which they’re working.

Ma will likely bring the same approach to the museum’s proposed site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place East, Solomon and others predicted. 

“I think that the museum plays a role on the outside as well as on the inside,” Denison said. “His work is meant to be experienced from all perspectives.”

Gang, meanwhile, has been tapped to design the landscape around the museum and create a bridge connecting the museum to Northerly Island. That’s where Gang and her firm, Studio Gang, have already laid the framework for the redevelopment of open space. 

Chicago architects praised the pairing of a global and local vision for the project. Jen Masengarb, director of interpretation and research for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, was particularly happy to hear the officials are thinking broadly about the proposed site — and what’s happening next door at Northerly Island.

Gang “and her firm are really interested in sort of bringing nature into the urban landscape,” Masengarb said. 

She also said Gang’s bridge would be the first structure to connect Northerly Island to the Museum Campus since the Sky Ride attraction at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933.

Lakefront protectionists have promised to do “what it takes” — even sue — to block Lucas’ new building east of Lake Shore Drive. 

If the architects can come up with an aesthetically pleasing design that links the lakefront campus to Northerly Island, it will ease the concerns about a protracted court fight. That’s apparently what Mayor Rahm Emanuel is hoping for.

In an emailed statement, Emanuel said: “Chicago is known worldwide for constantly leading in architectural design, and the team announced by the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is of the caliber to continue that great tradition. 

“The project will be one of global significance, not just because of a cutting edge building design, but because of how the team and George Lucas plan to integrate the museum with Chicago’s natural landscape through a pedestrian bridge that will connect visiting families to Northerly Island’s sprawling green space,” the mayor said.

Denison also predicted Ma and Gang will consider all voices in the design of the new museum and its landscape.

“It’s a major, major gift to the city,” Denison said. 

Contributing: Fran Spielman