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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."

Is there a disconnect between competitions and Chicago architecture? Read on.

Join a discussion on this story.

© 2009 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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