From time to time I get to get out of the house and meet actual TOP readers in the flesh, which is always nice for a change. This year it's clearly my year for football; I got to attend the Perfect Packer Game earlier in the year, and this past weekend I was invited by a photographer and TOP reader named Michael McCaskey to attend a Chicago Bears game. That's where I've been these past couple of days.
Michael is obviously a true Bears fan; the depth of his knowlege about the team is pretty extraordinary. He must go to a fair number of games, too—it seemed like he and his wife Nancy knew a lot of the other people in the stands, and vice versa.
In fact, for a photographer, Michael seems to know an awful lot about football, period. Throughout the game, almost offhandedly, he would make these incisive comments about the the plays and the players that I just wasn't seeing—and he was right every time, seemed to me. It was almost like he knew the players personally or something.
Not only that, but for some reason he had a great deal of insider information about the design and construction of the new Soldier Field, too. (It opened in 2003.)
Soldier Field is radical enough architectually to have had its critics, but I feel certain that in time it will become deeply beloved as a civic landmark. Everything thought through afresh has its critics at first; you probably know John Rewald's wonderful accounts of the lovers and haters of Impressionism when that style of painting was new, and don't forget that the Eiffel Tower was excoriated as an "eyesore" by many Parisians when it was alien to the skyline they knew! I doubt many Parisians feel that way now.
The reason I like Soldier Field is in part that it stands 70 years of modern architectural tradition on its head. At least since Frank Lloyd Wright* it has become commonplace for "statement" architecture to ignore function in favor of form—buildings become, essentially, sculpture, and never mind what they're meant for. (this is my main criticism of the otherwise fabulous Calatrava Addition at MAM—Milwaukee's "landmark by the lake." It's great as bold civic symbolism and architectural sculpture; it's just not that great as a place to display art.) Michael wanted the new Soldier Field to be a great place to watch football, and it was designed with the fans in every corner of it foremost in mind. After it was built, Michael watched games from every section of the stadium to experience the game and talk to the fans there. Despite being at the other end of the spectrum from the near-antique and admittedly hallowed Lambeau, it gives up nothing in small size and closeness to the action—it's truly just as great a place to watch football.
(Granted, we had good seats. I was just bein' funny above, of course, as any football fan or Chicagoan knows already—photography is only Michael McCaskey's third career. In his first he was a professor at the Business Schools of UCLA and Harvard, and during the second he served first as President and then Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Bears. He retired last May.)
Anyway, I now think any Chicagoans who still don't like the c. 2003 Soldier Field probably simply aren't "seeing" it yet. They'll come to love it as they experience it—as it was meant to be experienced, from the inside, watching talented guys in funny suits collide. I reserve the right to love Lambeau better (team loyalty is the first requirement of any football fan, isn't it?), but I agree with architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, who named Soldier Field one of the five best buildings of 2003. I think it's already become one of my favorite buildings. I like it as architecture, but it's when it's fulfilling its function that its truest beauty emerges. Perfect place to watch a game.
And as for the game? I suppose it could have been better—the Bears could have won. But, to paraphrase my Bears-fan brother Charlie (who came along too, at Michael and Nancy's invitation), "A bad day watching the Bears at Soldier Field is better than a good day doing almost anything else." Great fun. My thanks again to Michael McCaskey, photographer.
*Notoriously, the ceilings often leaked in Wright houses, and they were hard to live in in other ways.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by James Liu: "Mike, Team loyalty comes first. You're supposed to want the Bears to lose in almost all circumstances. And I say this as a Bears fan. Though this year, it hardly matters to the Packers what the Bears do. And photographer Michael McCaskey knowing a lot about the Bears? And having good seats at the Bears game? Ya think? For the record, I like the new Soldier Field too. It says so much about Chicago architecture, from Burnham through Mies and beyond."
Mike replies: Actually, I lived in Chicago for five years and rooted for the Bears. And Charlie and I have a pact: he roots for the Packers except when their success would be at the expense of the Bears in any way, and I root for the Bears except when their success would be at the expense of the Packers in any way. If the Packers were out of the post season and the Bears were in it, I'd call Charlie and say "I'm a Bears fan now." He's the same with the Pack, despite bleeding Bear blue. I was genuinely rooting for them on Sunday, sorry they lost—and very sorry Matt Forte was injured.
Featured Comment by ILTim: "I've been to two games since the renovation, seat one, row 1 on the 50 yard line (how I got those tickets, free, I'll never know), and one game from the very highest nosebleeds off in a corner.
"I don't like that they sold this as a kind of continuation of Soldier Field; the old digs are gone baby, long gone. But as a new stadium it is marvelous. I especially love how you walk in and find yourself on that main concourse, darn near on the field, sheer canyon walls rising high above blotting out the sky bristling with Bears fans.
"The nosebleed section is remarkably steep. I once grabbed the armrest because I turned my head too fast and felt like I was falling. I thought I'd fall flat on the field from where I was. The view was still darn good."
Featured Comment by Ed Hawco: "Regarding form for function, the Guggenheim in New York opened to much criticism, including complaints that the low ceilings could not accomodate large paintings. Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly retorted 'then cut them in half!'"