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Burnham Plan-amania!: Architecture Lost?






 -by Lynn Becker

[October 2, 2008] - The Burnham Plan Centennial committee unveils details of the massive 100th anniversary celebration of Daniel Burnham's landmark 1909 Plan of Chicago. Will architecture be an afterthought?

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


Burnham 100
A Thursday morning press conference in Aurora will unveil

many of the details of the ambitious plans for celebrating the 100th anniversary of Daniel Burnham's landmark 1909 Plan of Chicago. It's being done at GreenTown: The Future of Community, a conference on sustainable development. In the words of the press release:

While many events and programs will recognize the history of the Plan, the Centennial’s main thrust will be to create major regional legacies transportation system. Centennial activities also will plan, called “GO TO 2040," being developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

The celebration will include 250 "Centennial Partners" - museums, civic organizations, schools, professional associations and others - not only in Illinois, but in Wisconsin, Santa Fe Building, Chicago, Daniel Burnham, architectIndiana and Michigan, as well. The Chicago Architecture Foundation, housed in the 1904 Santa Fe Building, the Burnham designed structure in which the architect wrote the 1909 plan in his top floor offices with sweeping views of the city's lakefront, will be offering tours, exhibits and public programs. The Newberry Library is developing an exhibition that will be on display at 50 public libraries, O'Hare airport, and on-line.

The bulk of the events are set for June through October of next year, including a scheduled June 19th opening for two temporary pavilions in Millennium Park to be Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the America City, a documentary by Judith Paine McBriendesigned by Ben van Berkel and Zaha Hadid. Also on that day, a symphonic and choral work by Michael Torke, based on the language of the 1909 plan, will be performed at a free concert at the Pritzker Pavilion. September 9th will see the premiere of Make No Little Plans, Judith Paine McBrien's long-awaited documentary on Burnham's life and work. "Daniel Burnham was the Elmer Gantry of architecture and planning," comments Stanley Tigerman in a tantalizing preview, "He could sell ice cubes to Eskimo's - and did."

Centennial committee co-chair John Bryan, who was instrumental in raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the creation of Millennium Park, is quoted as saying that the Burnham Plan . . . "provided many of the iconic places of today's city - North Michigan Avenue, the two-level Wacker Drive, Grant Park, the forest preserve system and the public lakefront. Millennium Park continues this tradition. We intend to come out of the Centennial year with exciting new projects."

Bryan is a guy who's less about theories than getting great things done. The original Cloud Gate Sculpture, Millennium Park, Chicago, Anish Kapoor, sculptor"theory" behind Millennium Park was to cover up the railroad tracks with a traditional neo-classical park - amiable, accomplished, safe. Paired with the Pritzker family, Bryan and project manager Edward Uhlir took the bit in their teeth and upped the ante, bringing in Frank Gehry to design the spectacular Pritzker Pavilion and BP Bridge, and adding artworks like Jaume Plensa/Krueck and Sexton's Crown Fountain, and Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate (aka, "da Bean") sculpture, a new icon for the city just as the park, itself, has quickly become a shining new emblem of Chicago both for its own citizens and for visitors from across the globe.

In contrast, the Burnham Centennial Committee is top-heavy with people from Chicago Metropolis 2020, including co-chair George A. Ranney, CEO of Chicago Metropolis 2020, and and vice chair Adele Simmons, former head of the MacArthur Foundation, now vice chairman and executive with Chicago Metropolis 2020.

Burnham's 1909 had a strong visual component, with striking renderings by Jules Guerin of a spectacular new Chicago built in the neo-classical style which was then Burnham's stock-in-trade. In the Chicago Metropolis 2020 report, issued a few years ago, the issue of the quality of the built environment was all but ignored. The full report had no illustrations at all, and a summary document was illustrated with numbingly generic cityscapes inhabited by faceless - literally faceless - people.

A city is not just about process. It's buildings both embody the processes - industry, commerce, research, recreation - that power the city, and are the visual expression of itsAqua, Studio/Gang, architects values, priorities and ethics. Burnham knew this. Judging by its report, Metropolis 2020 may not.

It is, of course, tremendously exciting to have Hadid and Van Berkel doing their first work in Chicago, even if the results will only be temporary. The fact that none of the world-class architects who make Chicago their home have been called upon is, at minimum, dispiriting, and to say so is not a matter of provincialism.

To build the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Burnham called on both the famous architects of the East, and great Chicago architects like Louis Sullivan, William LeBaron Jenney and Solon S. Beman, not because he was being politically correct, but because they were the best. The Chicago architects of today, from Helmut Jahn, to Ralph Johnson, SOM, Goettsch, Smith+Gill, Jeanne Gang and many others, are in demand throughout the world for ambitious, ground-breaking signature projects. How empty it will be if they are left out of the Burnham Plan celebration.

The Chicago Architectural Club is working to balance the equation with their 2008 Union Station 2020, the 2008 Burnham Prize architectural competition sponsored by the Chicago Architectural ClubBurnham Prize competition, Union Station 2020, with the very timely theme of turning that facility into a high-speed rail hub. The deadline for submittals is October 15th.

We live in a very different time than that in which Burnham created his 1909 plan. Then, it was still pretty much an old boys' club, and his plan was assembled through committees of the well-connected. Only after its completion was it marketed to the wide public. It would be another decade before women throughout the nation won the right to vote, and they had no place at Burnham's table, nor did the emigrant classes that made up the bulk of Chicago's population. In 1909, the Chicago Plan Commission was created to forward the objectives of Burnham's Plan. That same commission is now little more than a rubber stamp for the whims of Chicago's powerful mayor Richard M. Daley.

Today, the dynamics of urbanism have grown even more complex, and the idea of an urban plan, scientifically arriving at irrefutable truths, whose ideas are swallowed whole by an enthralled public is, just as in Burnham's day, a myth. You can only look at how Daniel Burnham, architect Burnham's recommendations were ignored, subverted or, and usually at best, imperfectly adopted, to realize how "Between the conception And the creation . . . the idea And the reality . . . falls the shadow."

Burnham's 1909 Plan was based on a set of assumptions about the character of the city and its residents. He, himself, had left the city for a residence in Evanston in 1886. "“I did it because I can no longer bear to have my children run in the streets of Chicago, and because especially I can not stand them being on the South Side.” He never came back. It's difficult to look at those beautiful buildings lining the grand boulevards in Jules Guerin's drawings and imagine a place in them where a stockyards' laborer would find welcome.

None of this is to disparage Burnham's monumental achievement, one that continues to instruct and inspire a century later. It is only to suggest that a plan fabricated only out of Burnham Plan Centennialstatistics is little more than a cartoon, its surface objectivity less a polygraph than an evasion. Ethical issues - about what constitutes a healthy city, a great city (they may prove very different, perhaps sometimes even irreconcilable, things), who it should serve, who it must tame, down to what its architecture should look like and what kind of message and experience that architecture provides - are the backbone beneath any plan, even if it's never stated explicitly.

For Burnham 100, let's have a great party, to be sure, but to truly honor Daniel Burnham's legacy, we need less a recapitulation than an energetic, impassioned, inclusive and informed debate about which choices best stand to foster a vibrant, creative, prosperous, beautiful and just city for the 21st century.

See all the information on the Burnham Plan Centennial here.

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© 2008 photos and text Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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