Nature vs. Skywalker: The Battle of the Museum Proposals

Posted by Sasha on Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Presidio Trust public board meeting

The battle of the museum proposals for the waterfront site on San Francisco’s Crissy Field continued this week at the Presidio Trust’s first public hearing this Monday night. During the meeting, the three finalists – The Bridge/Sustainability Institute, the Presidio Exchange (PX), and the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum (LCAM) – presented their revised proposals in response to the Trust’s November feedback. Though there are three finalists, the LCAM and the PX are the clear favorites and both offer a compelling visitor experience.

Contrary to popular belief, the Lucas Museum is not a Star Wars museum, but a place of innovation and hands-on learning that celebrates all forms of American visual storytelling. The galleries will be 10-20% Star Wars props, art and artifacts, but the majority of the museum will be dedicated to cinematic, digital and illustrative arts as a whole. LCAM’s primary focus is to fill the arts education gaps that many schools aren’t able to meet, especially in underprivileged communities.

The biggest problem with Lucas’ proposal is the architecture, which many believe is outdated and inappropriate for the Presidio. The design of the LCAM building reflects an eclectic mix of Roman and Greek motifs and mimics the visual style of the Pan Pacific International Exposition held at the turn of the century. Lucas believes that this Classic flare expresses the democracy of ideas and human imagination. This architectural approach is a step backwards, but at least it will be modern in terms of green construction, climate control and sustainability. At the public meeting, the Lucas team presented two new design schemes with reduced massing and height, smaller footprints, and less imposing appearances, but without a side-by-side comparison it was hard to tell the difference between the new schemes and the original design.

Original rendering of the Lucas Cultural Arts Museum

new concept rendering for Lucas Cultural Arts Museum

The true competitor to LCAM is the PX, which is more of a “center” than a museum, as it does not have a collection of artifacts. PX’s mission is to help visitors connect with culture and the natural world, offering a variety of flexible programming from seminars and live performances to installations and public artwork, most of which will be free of charge. In response to the Trust’s feedback, the PX team refined their master narrative to the tagline: “A contemporary center for nature and culture,” and reduced their footprint to about half of LCAM’s. The PX building proposal is far superior to LCAM in terms of environmental impact, modern design and connection with the surrounding area; the building seamlessly blends into Crissy Field and connects with other landmarks.

Presidio Exchange concept rendering

While the PX had the strongest presentation and perhaps the strongest public show of support, the presentation left a lot to the imagination, literally relying on the word “Imagine” to paint a utopian picture of a center that can speak to today’s cultural and environmental problems. Instead of being inspirational, this seemed to reveal one of the proposal’s key flaws: too much flexibility can border on uncertainty. If the PX tries to be a place for everyone, it may come across as everything and nothing at once.

In addition, while the team behind the PX (the Parks Conservancy), has a proven track record with youth programming, the PX appears to be a very adult place of high-level goals. This does not make the PX a very attractive family or tourist destination. LCAM, on the other hand, naturally lends itself to inspiring and entertaining youth. LCAM will not have to work hard to draw in tourists; it will easily appeal to kids’ interests and families and fans alike will flock to its collections.

Star Wars traveling exhibition

After the three finalists presented their revised proposals at Monday’s meeting, the board opened the floor to the public for the first time, which clearly has been long overdue based on the impassioned opinions and long sign-up sheet (99 participants, each allowed a maximum of 2 minutes to speak). Aside from the couple of Ohlone tribe members and the one Cherokee visitor, the audience was relatively homogenous, which is surprising given the diverse audiences that the museums are proposing to engage.

Public opinion ranged from support for LCAM and the PX to urging the Trust not to make any decision at all. What’s most interesting about the public statements is that many pro-PX comments were very critical of George Lucas, asserting, “It’s not the time to celebrate one man’s career success in the digital arts,” and that the Trust should delay making a decision. Many of the pro-LCAM speakers pointed to the importance of arts education and providing a center that supports the future of children’s imagination. Some of the LCAM supporters may not have helped Lucas’ image by referencing the numerous celebrity supporters he has rallied, which seemed only to strengthen the PX supporters’ stance as representatives of a more inclusive, down to earth community. Lucas certainly isn’t doing a great job at appealing to the public, especially by sticking to his architectural preferences despite widespread disapproval. He seems to be playing the role of Director, which doesn’t sit well in a community of progressive thinkers and social activists like the Bay Area. That being said, attacking Lucas’ character is not a sound argument for why the PX should be chosen over LCAM.

It’s understandable why the Trust is ambivalent about making a decision: Lucas appears not to be acting like a team player, the PX’s funding and programming is on the ambiguous side, and none of the proposals actually reflect the history and legacy of the Presidio itself. However, while there is no clear winner, LCAM would put the Presidio on the global map. LCAM is arguably the more important proposal for the San Francisco community in terms of tourism and celebrating the Bay Area’s contributions to technology, arts and cinema, not to mention the strides it would make in arts education where public schools have left a huge gap. To lose this museum to another city would be a real tragedy.

Palace of Theed on Naboo - Star Wars visual effects composition

Scott Squires, Doug Chiang, Steve Gawley
The Phantom Menace TM & © 1999 Lucasfilm Ltd.

The decision lies in the hands of the Trust, but Monday’s meeting made it clear that the community feels a strong sense of ownership over the Presidio and its fate. Like so many other iconically San Franciscan moments in history, from the hippie movement in the Haight Ashbury to the Native American occupation of Alcatraz, the Crissy Field decision is not just about land development, it’s a struggle to define ownership and a sense of place. The winning project will forever change how visitors and locals make use of a National landmark, which is not to be taken lightly.


image sources:,

One response to “Nature vs. Skywalker: The Battle of the Museum Proposals”

  1. Steve Rugg says:

    I think it is quite obvious that San Francisco is not a good choice. No one wants to travel to San Francisco to see a Museum anyway. It should be built, in N. or S. Carolinas. Even Denver would be a better choice. If they are going for the traditional building design, vs a unique futuristic design it could even be built in Florida near the space complex.

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