Observations and Images on Architecture, Culture and More, in Chicago and the World. See it all here.

Symbol vs Substance: Chicago's memorial to Daniel Burnham





 -by Lynn Becker

[March 27, 2009] - Does a proposed memorial to architect and planner Daniel Burnham represent an overdue tribute or a colossal failure of nerve? Should 2009 be the year to finally begin realizing Burnham's vision for a grand gateway to Chicago's lakefront?

The Magic of America, by Marion Mahony Griffin


"I suppose he thinks we are going to hog it all!" - architect John Wellborn Root, after being snubbed by a colleague suspecting Root and Daniel Burnham were going to monopolize the design of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

"We don't want nobody that nobody sent." - Chicago ward commiteeman responding to a young Abner Mikva's offering his time to work for the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas.

Lector, si monumentum requiris, Circumspice. Has anyone better personified Christopher Wren's famous epitaph than Daniel Burnham?

But circumspice, my eye: we're going to build him one, anyway.

How that whole tale is playing out - along with the evolution of two other temporary structures being constructed this summer - may offer up a decidedly unofficial, but far truer, less sentimentalizedBurnham Memorial Competition, 2009. AIA Chicago reconsideration of Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago, whose centennial celebration this year is what's cooked up the whole porridge.

In February, the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects sent out a press release announcing that twenty architects had been invited to submit proposals in a competition for the design of a memorial to Daniel Burnham on a site in front of the Field museum. Nowhere in the release was there indication of who decided on these firms, or why. Nor was there indication who would be winnowing the entries down to the three to five finalists that would be submitted to a blue-ribbon jury to decide a final winner.

David Goodman, current co-president of the Chicago Architectural Club, decided he Chicago Architectural Club challenges official entries to 2009 Competition to Design a Memorial to Daniel Burnhamwas mad as hell and he wasn't going to take it any more. On March 12, little more than a week before the March 20th deadline for submissions, he launched a frontal assault on what he saw as the closed, inbred nature of the competition to design the Burnham Memorial, inciting his excluded colleagues to "Crash the Burnham Memorial Competition."

"An opportunity like the Burnham Memorial Competition ought to be open to more than just the usual suspects," Goodman wrote. "So…having gotten our hands on the competition documents through means I won’t disclose, we’ve sent the entire thing out to the club . . . this ought to be a moment for the architectural community to begin to put pressure on the PBC, Park District, whomever, to open up a process for public Competition to Design a Memorial to Daniel Burnham, site mapcompetitions for public work."

"I have lived and worked for many years in Spain, where law dictates that all public projects must be awarded through an open competition process. The result: nearly three decades of consistently excellent work, work that has given emerging architects (like Rafael Moneo, in his time, Enric Miralles and Carme Pinos, Mansilla and Tunon, etc) a chance to raise their profiles, and to raise the overall relevance of architecture – the results of these competitions end up in the news, in the public consciousness. The competition process also ends up forcing established architects to compete for work. In the end, the competition system produces better work, through more transparent means."

The official twenty - each of whom will receive $5,000 for their troubles - is a who's-who of prominent Chicago firms, from SOM and OWP/P, to Perkins+Will, Studio Gang, David Woodhouse, John Ronan, etc., and Goodman was quick to admit "many of the architects chosen are really good."

In a comment posted to Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin's report on the rebellion, AIA Chicago EVP Zurich Eposito expressed surprise at Goodman's campaign, claiming he had talked to Goodman earlier in the week about the possibility of unsolicited entries, and that "I confirmed with our committee, board, and funders and all of us unanimously agreed that it was a great idea. We are also planning a publication and exhibit of all the submissions, including the mavericks."

Why, if it was such a good idea, it had occurred to no one involved in the competition until Goodman's prodding was left unexplained. One report said instructions for submitting entries via FTP were sent to the official competitors last week with stern admonitions not to share the information with any of the unwashed uninvited.

Goodman wrote me from New Orleans last Thursday to report that he and the CAC's other co-president, Romina Canna, have a meeting set up with Esposito this week to drop off the entries they've collected. AIA Chicago now has a page up on their website soliciting ideas for the memorial from all comers, complete with instructions and an address for submissions, and an extended deadline of 10:00 p.m., Monday, March 30th.

Serpentine Gallery, Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond, architects. Photograph: Louisiana Museum, Denmark
Serpentine Gallery, London, Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond, architects

The developing controversy could actually be said to have begun with the announcement last June by the Burnham Plan Centennial Committee that architects Zaha Hadid and UNStudio's Ben van Berkel had been chosen to design two temporary pavilions for Millennium Park "to stimulate thinking about the future, including video representations of the visions of some of Chicago’s leading architects and urban designers." At a lecture last week on Burnham by Kristen Schaffer, Art Institute Architecture and Design curator Joseph Rosa referred to the projects as Chicago's versions of London's Serpentine Gallery, where the design of a temporary park structure each year by a different world renowned architect, from Hadid, to Oscar Niemeyer, Frank Gehry (last year), and Toyo Ito and Cecil Balmond, has resulted in some of the most arresting buildings of the last decade.
Serpentine Gallery, 2007, London, Zaha Hadid, architect
Serpentine Gallery, 2007, London, Zaha Hadid, architect

Nowhere in the press release, however, was there any discussion of how, why, and by whom these two architects were chosen. Were they the most suitable to the project? The most interested? The only available? Wouldn't it have been more interesting to have one pavilion from an international architect contrasting with a design from a Chicago architect?

Although the scheduled unveiling date is less than three months away, we still have no idea what we're getting. (Maybe we can nab Zaha's snail spaceship Mobile Art pavilion, now that sponsor Chanel has cancelled the rest of its worldwide tour.) Also still unknown is whether, in the wake of the new monasticism that's infected architecture critics after last fall's economic meltdown like witchcraft spooked Salem, we will find Hadid and van Berkel besieged on the Chase Promenade this summer by black robed penitents holding crosses and chanting in eerie unison, "stararchitects . . . unclean, unclean."
Are competitions and Chicago architecture an oxymoron? Read on.

Is There a Disconnect Between Competitions and Chicago Architecture?

reporter Jackson Bentley: I know you've been given no artillery.
Prince Feisal: That is so.
Bentley: You're handicapped.
Feisal: It restricts us to small things.
Bentley: It's intended to.

- Michael Wilson and Robert Bolt, Lawrence of Arabia

Truth be told, the IIT competition that brought Rem Koolhaas to Chicago notwithstanding, architectural competitions are to Chicago architecture are like parallel lines stretching to infinity: they don't converge.

In 2001, the city invited eight architectural firms to participate in a competition for the redesign of Chicago's Randolph Street visitors center. The result was a series of creative and competitive designs, none of which were ever built.

Five years ago this coming April, Studio Gang Architects won a hotly contested competition to design a visitors center for the new Ford Calumet Environmental nature center, on land reclaimed from former industrial property on Chicago's far south side. It was announced at the time the project was fully-funded, and that "The FCEC is scheduled to open in 2006." To the best of my knowledge, not a spade of earth has yet to be turned.

The Chicago Architectural Club, itself, played the mayor's patsy in yet another instance of the traditional scam. The CAC thought it had scored a coup in reaching an agreement to work with the city on the club's 2005 Chicago Prize competition. “It really started,” said CAC's Brian Vitale at the time, “with a call that I made with my co-president Robert Benson to the mayor's office to see if there any architectural issues that were needing to be dealt with in the city that we could lend a hand with."

And what topic did the mayor select to take advantage of this priceless opportunity to get thousands of hours of free work from architects? Newer, better ideas for the replacements to the CHA high-rises then being demolished? Using superior design to help resurrect decaying neighborhoods? Redeveloping abandoned railyards? Rescuing the streets from the derelict gloom of the Loop L? No, no, no . . . and no.Rahman Polk, winning entry to Chicago Architectural Club's 2005 Chicago Prize Competition, Water Tanks

Water tanks.
That's what the mayor came up with. Those quaint, vanishing dinosaurs of the age before powerful pumps, out of sight, out of mind.

Still, not wanting to be churlish, architects did expend thousands of valuable hours - remember, this was a time when there was still a lot of paid work to go round - submitting over 200 entries of often astonishing commitment, creativity and quality. The mayor stopped by the Cultural Center to congratulate competition winner Rahman Polk, and to walk through an exhibition of many of the best entries. Then he left, taking the photographers and reporters with him. And nothing was heard of it ever again. I guess it's the thought that counts.

Toss those pesky would-be volunteers a bauble to keep them occupied while the real work is done by reliable people, behind closed doors. That's the Chicago way.

So now we're having a competition for a memorial to Daniel Burnham. A diversionary sideshow, to be sure, but not without its challenges. The official illustration for the Site photograph, Burnham Memorial Architectural Competitioncompetition makes the site appear to be part of a broad expanse of largely flat lawn in front of the Field Museum. In fact, it's a large marshmallowy lump of earth raking down from the raised level of the museum to the walkways lowered to pass under nearby streets.

Unlike its neighbors, the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, there is no direct axial approach to the Field Museum, even though its the dominant building on the campus. You have to approach it, crab-like, from the sides. While this processional is not without visual interest, the lack of a direct axial access means that the full majesty of the Field's facade and grand classical entrance wing remains obscured behind the surging hill in front of it.

The bottom line, however, is that this competition doesn't seem to be about much of anything. It solves no major problem, addresses no pressing challenge. It reeks of safety and inconsequence: Water Tanks, 2009 edition.

The site, itself offers up a a kind of bastard commentary, at a Field Museum that's far removed from Burnham's original placement for it at the current location of Buckingham Fountain, where it was to serve as the great cultural gateway between the lakefront and Burnham's magnificent new boulevard to the west, its vista dominated by the soaring dome of a civic center whose urbane beauty was engineered to make Parisians weep with envy.

And therein lies a truly worthy subject for a competition. Read on.

Join a discussion on this story.


© 2009 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

The Chicago Children's Museum - The Battle Over Grant Park
Chicago Spire, Santiago Calatrava, architect, Marketing Begins

Santiago Calatrava Explains it All for You - The Chicago Spire

The New Spertus Lightens Up
Uptown the Architecture of Dreams and Waking

Richard Nickel's Chicago

Planning and Its Disconnects in the city of Chicago