In the wake of Chicago's biggest construction boom since the 1920's, a look at the resulting buildings raises a fundamental question: Can planning be a means to better architecture?
(Originally published in slightly different and far better-edited form under the title "Can Planning be a means to better architecture"
in the Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer, 2005 as part of a special issue on Urban Planning Now - What Works, What Doesn't?)
I. Introduction - Make No Little Plan - from Burnham 1909 to Metropolis 2020
In Chicago, planning and superior design are on parallel paths that seldom converge. Regional planning has largely lost interest in the quality of the built environment, while municipal regulation, by its charge, is less a force for extending Chicago's legacy of architectural innovation than a machine for maximizing development by taming the most egregious design failings of the market economy. As a result, seldom in Chicago's history has the will to create superior architecture been as marginalized as it today. Let me explain.
Daniel Burnham placed architectural design at the center of his 1909 Plan of Chicago. Today, mention of the plan is most liable to evoke not its ideas but instead Jules Guerin's stunning renderings of districts composed of new buildings sharing a uniform cornice height, standardized massing, and generic French Empire detailing. Long before, the legacy of the innovative architecture of the first Chicago School had been discarded as child's play on the road to the perfect city of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. What is probably the most famous image of the 1909 Plan is of a gargantuan city hall that looked forward less to Mies van der Rohe than to Albert Speer.
Flash forward to nearly a century later. The Commercial Club of Chicago, the same organization that commissioned Burnham's Plan, issues Chicago Metropolis 2020: Preparing Metropolitan Chicago for the 21st Century. There isn't a single illustration in the entire 120 page document.
To the authors of this document, The Burnham Plan, in an economically burgeoning era, focused on the theme of beauty. The new plan, in contrast is all about process: education, land use, transportation and, above all, jobs. The actual physical form the future might take doesn't seem to be worth speculation. Indeed, while a summary document, The Metropolis Plan: Choices For the Chicago Region is illustrated, it is with a series of watercolor like paintings that are stunning in their willful lack of specificity - numbingly generic cityscapes where the name on the café sign is blurred to illegibility and the people on the street have no faces. A full page is devoted to an idyllic scene in which, in foreground, a politically correct family-man, woman, a child of each sex, all ambiguously raceless, are having a picnic on a checkered red blanket in an empty meadow from which the abstracted towers of the city are kept at the far distance, and, in fact, all built environment is kept safely away, behind the bank of a river. No roads, streets, or trains - or a single other human being - are anywhere to be seen.
It would easy to dismiss such illustrations as a simple Let's make sure we offend no one design choice, but the more startling reality is that they accurately reflect what, for architecture, may be the dominant reality of our time-the triumph of a market economy increasingly dependent on converting products, services, ideas, and even the components of the built environment into lower cost, easily reproducible commodities.
Planning is, almost by definition, an insult to such pure market economics. In its Panglossian world, an unfettered market always produces the optimum result. If unpleasantness or ugliness occurs, it's an inevitable and economically justifiable tradeoff on the road to a greater private good. Planning, on the other hand, is predicated on the idea of a greater public good, one often placed in peril by the excesses of the market, which it must tame, even as it directs the energies of the market towards those channels that will generate the greatest good for the greatest number.
In the real world, of course, only zealots are pure planners or free market disciples. Especially in Chicago, which could be said to be the city of the deal. Politics ain't beanbag, Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley said in the 1890s, reflecting a disdain of reformers that lives on in the city to this day. Planners are reformers at their worst, and the more far reaching their plans have been, the easier they have been to ignore or suborn.
It's hard to think of an architect who was more of an equal among the city's powerbrokers than Daniel Burnham, but Chicago-and its architecture-still developed along a quite different path than his plan intended. Even when his vision was realized, it was often in the context of diminution and unexpected consequences. To cite two examples: of the 1909 plan's proposal for four recreational islands in the lake, only Northerly Island was completed, as a site for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. And while the recommended building of a bridge across the river in 1922 did transform scruffy Pine Street, renamed North Michigan Avenue, into the city's elite boulevard, it also set the stage, later in the 1970s, for the Magnificent Mile to overtake State Street as the Chicago's primary retailing strip and to leave what was for over a century one of the city's essential economic engine a dilapidated and needy presence.
From That Great Street to Vacant Lot - The Cautionary Tale of Block 37
In 1979, State Street was closed to traffic, landscaped over and converted to a pedestrian mall, which didn't stop the street's decline, including closing of four of its legendary department stores, by the time the mall was torn up and the traffic returned to the street in 1996.
In an even less successful attempt at revitalization, Block 37, an entire city block across from the signature Marshall Field's flagship store was razed in 1989, including several historic structures, among them the Louis Sullivan renovated Springer Block, the United Artists theater, and the McCarthy Building, whose status as an official city landmark was revoked in an ill-conceived rush to create a tabula rasa for potential development. The ill-fated story of Block 37 has spawned its own book, Ross Miller's Here's the Deal, an epic of big-city deal-making and the limits of planning. The city spent well over $80,000,000 to acquire the land, which it sold to the developer for a little over $12,000,000. A decade later, all there was to show for their efforts was a series of spectacular renderings designs from architects Helmut Jahn and , later in the process, Solomon Cordwell Buenz. In 2002, it bought back the land for $32,500,000. In 2004, the city agreed to sell the land to a new developer, the Mills Corporation, for $12,900,000.
In the interim, Sears has returned to State Street, a number of old office buildings converted to condo's. One essential architectural masterpiece, Burnham's 1895 Reliance Building, has been rescued from ruin and fully restored as a hotel and rechristened with the architect's name; still another, Louis Sullivan's Carson Pirie Scott store is being retrofitted as a mixed use retail/office complex, and it's long-missing parapet reconstructed.
Through it all, Block 37 has retained its desolate splendor. Last Fall, still another set of new renderings, this time from architects Perkins and Will, were unveiled. Mills has signed contracts with
CBS Chicago and is luring "unique" retailers for a mixed-use complex. The Chicago Transit Authority is raising funds for a $213,000,000 transit "superstation" under Block 37 to serve "express" trains to the city's airports that do not now exist and for which no plans have been unveiled to make possible. Optimism over the site's prospects is at a new high, but for the moment, the only building on the site remains an electrical substation that dates back to 1931. From the six-story mural that covers its rear elevation, the "Plug Bug"
watches over the site with perpetual amusement at the folly of all those who have attempted to bring life to the site over the past two decades.
In the bare knuckled reality of how cities actually develop, Burnham's grand domed civic center never stood a chance. Envisioned as the centerpiece for a relocated heart of the city about a mile west of the Loop, it's the site today of the spaghetti bowl-three converging expressways and the arcing, elevated ramps that connect them. A Gordian knot of barrier and disruption, it has, for over four decades, successfully repulsed any idea of restoring the continuity of the surrounding urban fabric.
Planning is a lot better at coming to grips with the immediate past than it is in predicting and shaping the future. When Burnham created his 1909 plan, he was responding to an explosive, anarchic city that since 1880 had added a million and a half inhabitants and quadrupled in acreage-congested, unsanitary, and often-lawless. His remedy drew heavily on the previous century's example of Haussmann's Paris, carving broad boulevards through the maze of medieval streets to ease circulation and creating parks that would provide citizens a gentler outlet for social impulses that could turn disruptive or even violent in the older, overcrowded city.