Planning and Its Disconnects - Chicago's Future - Planning and Design in a Wal-Mart world

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?)

Planning and Its Disconnects

   I. Introduction

    II. Not Entirely What
    Burnham Had In Mind -
    Chicago at the close
    of the 20th Century

    III. The 1990's and Beyond
    A boom and its architecture

    IV. Making the Sausage
    How Chicago regulates

V. Chicago's Future
    Planning and Design in
    a Wal-Mart world



The Burnham Plan tried to imagine the look of the future
and succeeded only in reflecting the architecture of the past. Perhaps it's only fitting, therefore, that, faced with the same issue a century later, the Chicago Metropolis 2020 plan decided it just didn't want to get involved.

Local architects and institutions have tried to fill in the gaps. In its “Invisible City” exhibition, the Chicago Architecture Foundation engaged local architects to transform the abstractions of initiatives like the CAP and new building and zoning codes into specific proposals in which superior, creative design was a high priority. Similarly, the Chicago Architectural Club last year drew on the CAP when it sponsored a competition for the design of a parking garage over the Kennedy Expressway. The jury, which included architects Stanley Tigerman and Shigeru Ban, made a point of favoring entries that incorporated new parkland. In December of 2004, the Art Institute opened a new exhibition, Chicago Architecture: Ten Visions, that includes highly imaginative proposals for the city's future from ten of its leading architects, including an installation by Chicago architect Douglas Garofalo that uses student design projects to “illuminate” ideas in the image free Chicago Metropolis 2020 plan.

That none of these proposals in these and other past shows now has any shot of morphing into a real project exposes the soft underbelly of promoting design excellence in Chicago. The city itself has sponsored several architectural competitions, but to date none has translated into construction.

Chicago is not an island. It successes and failures derive, as they do throughout the country, on the forces of today's largely unfettered free-market economy. In the larger metro area, what's going on in Chicago is almost a sideshow. Even as downtown neighborhoods boom, Chicago is estimated to have lost over 26,000 residents since the 2000 census, while in the far western suburbs, just two towns, Aurora and Joliet, both over 40 miles outside the city, have added over 35,000. And while a recent Rand Corporation study credited Chicago's tight street grid for keeping sprawl in the overall region at a level far below the national average, the Northern Illinois Planning Council projects that over 80% of the region's population growth through 2030 will occur outside of the City of Chicago. The architecture of America's center cities may be what's most visible, but it's the architecture of urban sprawl that continues to dominate, confounding the best intentions of planners.

Not that long ago, every city and most towns had their own First National Bank, inevitably housed in a structure designed to express its singular sense of importance. It was just one of a range of numerous institutions in retailing, entertainment, and commerce, locally based, that depended upon architecture to express a distinctive personality. Today, an ever-smaller number of ever-larger corporations supplant localized presence with standardized architectural prototypes, infinitely reproducible. If we don't think twice about shopping in warehouses as long they can provide the goods we want at a more affordable price, why should we be any less comfortable living in generic towers - the residential equivalent of the big box retailer - if the spaces they enclose bring the comforts we desire within our economic reach?

Planning, despite its sometimes-utopian connotations, does not change who we are. At the moment, most of us remain creatures of a free market economy in which superior architecture has become almost a boutique endeavor, isolated from its mainstream impulses. And if you're inclined to retort that this always been true, think again. It was not true during the time of first Chicago School, many of whose masterpieces are simple loft buildings, commodities prepared on tight budgets. Nor was it true in the second Chicago school of Mies and his followers, where a big ticket project almost always meant design by a top architect. It was not even true when those 80,000 bungalows were built - a standardized design, to be sure, but one so architecturally adept that it retains its grace through both time and repetition.

No, a strong argument can be made that never in Chicago's history has the will to create superior architecture been as marginalized as it today. Planning, best at fixing past mistakes and trying to prevent their recurrence, can't reverse the trend. It's most basic power is proscriptive, not creative. It's actually most likely to stand in the way of truly innovative designs that use emerging technology to create new solutions that wind up being dramatically different from those we're used to - those that planning is most comfortable encouraging.

When Chicago's Millennium Park started out, it consisted of a parking garage topped by parkland designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill in a traditional Beaux-Arts style. That was the scope of the planning apparatus's vision: cover railroad tracks just off Michigan Avenue that had been an open ditch for over a century, rebuild a parking garage so that its revenue covered the costs of the bonds, and give the public a new park with the comforting look of Daniel Burnham's and Edward Bennett's original Grant Park designs. Practical, fiscally responsible, and architecturally embalmed.

Then Chicago's Pritzkers, the family behind the Nobel scaled Pritzker prize for architecture, got involved, setting the wheels in motion for engaging Frank Gehry to design the park's new band shell. Once Gehry was in place, the project exploded exponentially in ambition and daring (and cost, both public and private, to a final tab of just under a half billion dollars). By the time Millennium Park opened last summer, it had become a bold speculation on the power of modern design to re-invent the urban environment.

Planning consolidates and conserves; only ego, restless and voracious, creates.

Note: The above image, from photographer Terry Evans, depicts with amazing visual eloquence the kind of urban dynamism Millennium Park has brought back to downtown Chicago. The photo is part of her new book, Revealing Chicago: An Aerial Portrait. The photos will also make up an exhibition of the same name that will be on display at Millennium Park from June 10 through October 10, 2005.

Back to Introduction

Not Entirely What Burnham Had in Mind -
The 1990's and Beyond
- Making the Sausage



© Copyright 2005-2006 - Photos and text by Lynn Becker All rights reserved.


   1909 Plan of Chicago
   City of Chicago Five Year
      Affordable Housing Plan  

   Chicago Architectural Club
   Chicago Architecture Foundation
   Chicago Architecture: Ten Visions
   Chicago Central Area Plan
   Chicago Green Bungalow

   Chicago Plan Commission
   Chicago Zoning Ordinance
   Choices for the Chicago Region
   Metropolis 2020 Plan
   The Chicago Standard for
     Sustainable Architecture

   U.S. Green Building Council