What was Mayor Richard M. Daley thinking as he sat in the stands in Beijing and watched those dazzling, nationalistic, very expensive, opening ceremonies? I wish NBC had shown a shot of "Mayor Beautify". His jaw must have dropped at the display, mouth wide open enough for a Chinese acrobat to fly inside. How the heck can Chicago compete with that? What would Chicagoans say if Daley spent money like that? But money must be spent, and vision must be found to make a mark on the world scene.
You say China had more to prove, coming off of decades of also-ran status, and now hoping to show itself a leader on the world's stage? Well Chicago has been going in the other direction, dropping from an unquestionably world-class city to one with fewer corporate headquarters, fewer jobs in creative industries, fewer artists of world renown. Chicago must now prove that it can compete, not only with Beijing, but also with the other contenders for the 2016 games: Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Madrid. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will select a winner in October 2009. But for the long term, we need to demonstrate to ourselves and to all who would live here or open a factory or an office here, that Chicago is on the rise.
Start with a great stadium. Beijing's "Bird's Nest" blows the mind. We have never a stadium like it before. China is telling us it's a new world, and they are center stage. Are these walls? Is the steel woven? If it slants outward, how does it stand up? And, how can that stadium look so powerful and at the same time seduce me with its gorgeous sensuous curves?
Would anyone say that about the proposal for the Chicago stadium?
Chicago's proposed Olympic stadium, and it will surely be revised some, is a snooze. It may be elegant, but it heralds nothing new. The designers updated slightly the age old ideas of stadia by adding video screens to the exterior walls. If you've been to Times Square recently you've seen something similar. Don't think this will "wow" the IOC and make them want to give the games to Chicago. Especially when our competition in Tokyo are working with one of the world's greatest architects, Tadao Ando. Ando plans a stadium that would almost float, in harmony with thousands of trees he wants to plant. Hey, isn't he beating us at our own game? Isn't Mayor Daley - born on Arbor Day - the great planter of trees?
Chicago used to produce proud monumentality, for example in the tall, dark and handsome John Hancock building, but it's been a while since we've made the world look at us. Millennium Park of course is the exception, but I fear Chicago has not learned Millennium Park's real lessons: think for the ages, get the top design talent in the world, spend money on materials, and make the project appeal to the senses of people actually walking through it. That's how you make a great urban place.
China, we see, is brimming with "national pride." Do we need more national or civic pride? Is that partly why our urban areas are often lacking?
The new, temporary Olympic stadium proposed for Chicago gives the message "I'm practical and affordable, but hardly inspired." In that way it reminds me of Chicago's new Midway airport, compared to say, British architect Norman Foster's new enormous air terminal at Beijing's airport. Under Foster's feather-light, naturally lit roof, you enter into a whole new world of possibilities. At O'Hare we offer more aesthetics and pride than at Midway, but not to compare with several elegant new Asian and European airports.
And then there's the matter of getting from the airport into and around town once you're here. It's a good sign that Mayor Daley's first stop in Beijing was to check out their new subway lines. Since being awarded the games Beijing has built four new subway lines - lines, not stations! - for about eight billion dollars. Eight billion dollars for new subways in one city! And that's at low Chinese prices. I found them clean, safe, quiet, attractive, and almost always packed. Daley knows he has to improve Chicago's public transit system. He told the Chicago Tribune that he'd like Chicago Transit Authority President Ron Huberman and other transit officials to visit Beijing to see how they do it. Daley said about Chicago, "We've got the system all there. I mean, the 'L' goes right to the O'Hare field and right to Midway Airport, which is really unusual in most cities."
But it will take more than that. The "L' may look good on paper, but it's often unpleasant to use it. Our trains and buses need more flair and contemporary comforts, we need to make them speedier and quieter. We need express trains between the airports and downtown. Business needs quick and easy access. Ease of arrival and movement are ways in which cities compete today, not only for Olympic games but for long-lasting job-creation and population growth. Tokyo introduced bullet trains for the 1964 Olympics. They've served that city well ever since, and helped its economy grow.
Didn't "Make No Little Plans" kind of start in Chicago, as far as the modern world is concerned?
If Mayor Daley is serious about winning the Olympics he has got to offer grand, forward-thinking visions for his city. And the people will have to support the Mayor when he spends money on infrastructure. We haven't always done that, even when he has a good idea, such as adding nature with beautiful planters in the middle of Chicago's streets. China is said to have spent some 40 billion dollars in the run up to these games. They even have planters on the sides of expressway ramps. The opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics must have cost tens of millions of dollars.
London will host the summer games in 2012. They plan on spending just a quarter of what China has spent, yet after Beijing's opening night London's Olympics Minister said, "We should not be intimidated. We will do something just as wonderful and just as extraordinary." The head of Chicago's Olympic bid, Patrick Ryan, said of this week's unforgettable spectacle, "It was appropriate for Beijing and the people of China, and ours would be appropriate for the people of Chicago and the people of the United States." That sounds awfully status quo. We need to reach high in Chicago, as we did when we built the John Hancock.
Of the many highlights in Beijing, one that stood out were the hundreds of blocks with artists inside moving them up and down, undulating across the field, to symbolize the wind. NBC's China expert told us that Confucius said, "The virtuous leader can pass across his subjects with the ease of the wind." The Windy City is our home! Are you listening O wise and esteemed Emperor, I mean Mayor? Inspire us! Provide vision! You were dazzled by Beijing, as we were.