Chicago isn't sure if newer means better

THEY looked up. They looked around. And they thought . . . well, different things. ''I'm still making up my mind,'' confessed Stephanie Schultz of Stickney, Ill., a Chicago suburb. ''I love the old buildings. . . . I can't see tearing down the old buildings for this.''

''Wow. Oh wow,'' another woman muttered. ''It's beautiful. But it's not a State of Illinois building. You know?''

For months, Chicagoans have watched the State of Illinois Center go up. Designed by architect Helmut Jahn, the structure's exterior quickly became controversial.

It is certainly one of the most innovative designs of any public building in America - imagine a pie-shaped wedge cut out of a huge, blue flying saucer. Last week, for the first time, Chicagoans were invited to take a peek inside the unfinished, $172 million project.

''I like the building a lot,'' says Robert Eskridge, a lecturer at the Art Institute of Chicago. ''It's a very playful space.'' The exposed elevator shafts and pattern of balconies emphasize the ''erector set'' heritage of the city's architecture, he adds.

''Well, I kind of like it,'' says Michael Gnesin, a Chicago cab driver, looking up at the large, sloping skylight. But ''it's kind of dusty.''

Joe LaRue stares at the circular, four-color floor pattern one level below.

''It's beautiful,'' says the assistant dean of the graduate school of business at the University of Chicago. ''These days they don't design floors like that.''

''A monstrosity,'' says suburbanite Carl Romano, volunteering his opinion. ''Waste of space.''

The opportunity for the sneak preview came at the unveiling of the city's newest public sculpture - ''Monument with Standing Beast,'' by French sculptor Jean Dubuffet - which stands in the new building's plaza. And lunchtime passersby offered their views.

''A waste of taxpayers' money,'' snorted one businessman to no one in particular, as he prepared to cross the street.

''It's kind of impractical for a state building,'' explains Chicago banker Mike Gorman. But ''I kind of like the view.

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