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Daniel Burnham Saved from Drowning
[June 25, 2009 - first web publication December 30, 2009] - In which we attempt to rescue Daniel Burnham from the murky waters of the sea of adulation marking this year's celebration of the centennial of his 1909 Plan of Chicago. [originally published, in the Chicago Reader, in far better edited form, under the title An Odd Way to Honor Daniel Burnham.)
The Chicago Daniel Burnham confronted in 1909 was still very much the one encountered by Kipling a decade before, but at even greater scale. Undaunted, Burnham took full measure of that the in all its sprawling complexity - streets, railroads, parks, slums, waterworks, schools and more - and imagined a new City Beautiful that would tame Chicago's anarchic, self-destructive vitality and enrich the lives of its citizens. No one before and few since achieved so exhaustive a census of the workings and potential of a great city as can be found in Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago, whose centennial is being celebrated with an incredible wealth of events throughout the city.
Daniel Burnham was a world champion consolidator, an intellectual magpie with a real genius for identifying centers of power, cultural as well as political, and pulling them together into a forceful consensus. That's how he brought together the city's business elite to create and execute the 1909 plan, and how 16 years earlier he had molded an initially skeptical roster of America's top architects into the sleek design machine that produced the spectacularly successful 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the "perfect city" that was both the foundation for all his future city planning and a cautionary tale of the limits of pragmatism.
Burnham 's skill as an organizer were legendary. He could plan a building that fit the needs of the client like a glove. He knew almost instinctively the best place to put the washrooms and the elevators and how to lay out the offices for peak efficiency. He pioneered a new, more corporate way of practicing architecture that anticipated the global mega-firms of today. At the time of his death, Burnham & Co. was the largest architectural firm in the world. He was a genius at analyzing what needed to be done and arriving at the most efficient way of doing it. This talent was nowhere more in evidence than when he turned a useless swamp on the far south side of Chicago into the greatest international exhibition the world had ever seen.
Equal to this - and equally central to his success - were his skills as a motivator. His first partner, John Wellborn Root, was a talent of the first order, whose 1891 Monadnock may still be the finest building in Chicago. He was also a bit of a dreamer, a social charmer who loved to improvise on the piano, well-rounded to the point of distraction. Burnham's burning ambition, his ability to inspire, enabled Root to realize his full potential as a great architect. Burnham's closeness to his partner were cogently expressed in the words biographer Thomas S. Hines's biography describes him as uttering as he paced below the bedroom where Root had just died: "I have worked. I have schemed and dreamed to make us the greatest architects in the world. I have made him see it and kept him at it—and now he dies—damn! Damn! Damn!"
No question about it, Daniel Burnham was a force of nature.
Still, a pedestal is a poor place for taking the measure of a man. If there's been one deficiency in Chicago's exhaustive, exuberant celebration of Burnham and his plan, it's the absence of skepticism. Burnham needs his shadows, lest who he was and what he believed disappear in the blinding klieg lights of ceaseless praise. So, let's try to round out the picture; and, a bit later, talk a bit about local hucksters who've hijacked the celebration to advance an agenda that has little to do with Burnham but everything to do with trashing the legacy of the astounding architecture Burnham and his fellow architects created in late-19th-century Chicago.
Strictly as a designer, Burnham himself wasn't a great architect. At an Art Institute lecture earlier this year, Burnham scholar and groupie Kristen Schaffer made a snide reference to Louis Sullivan writing of himself in the third person, as if this somehow certified his inferiority; but Sullivan, with all his failures, was ten times the architect. There's a line of astonishing creative energy that runs strait through the course of his career, from his huge projects with Dankmar Adler through the the small midwestern banks he designed in the desperate final years of his life.
Not just the style but the quality of Burnham's work careens wildly over time. With Root he created trailblazing works of genius. After Root died unexpectedly in 1891, Burnham partnered with Charles Atwood to create a few more masterpieces, above all, the Reliance Building, a gleaming glass jewel box at State and Washington. But Atwood, sickly and an opium addict, lasted only to 1896, when he died, as well. After that, Burnham's work was a decidedly mixed bag. There were any number of good buildings: the Butler Brothers warehouses on Canal, the sparkling Railway Exchange (the Reliance writ large) on South Michigan, Washington's majestic if overblown Union Station. But genius had abandoned Burnham, and the years to come also produced such curiosities as the Peoples Gas Building across from the Art Institute, an overwrought concoction combining pomposity and ornamental confusion in equal measure.
In Root's original designs, the buildings for the 1893 World's Fair were to be a refinement of the type of progressive architecture that came to define Chicago after the fire, polychromatic and human-scaled. After Root's death, however, Burnham fell under the spell of Charles McKim, one of the great east-coast architects he'd persuaded to join his design team. McKim's work was defined by the Beaux Arts style, which mimicked classical architecture.. It turned out that McKim was an even more obstinate and forceful personality than Burnham, who was soon convinced that the Beaux Arts was the only possible template for the Fair's design.
A disgruntled Louis Sullivan famously remarked, "The damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century." He saw the directness and honesty of Chicago School architecture being displaced by a cynical separation of structure from appearance. In Greece and Rome, columns and stone walls had been a building's structure. In McKim's hands, they were a veneer that concealed the structure behind it.
To be sure, poetic expression is the mother's milk of great architecture—what is a Greek column but an expression of the tree trunks with which buildings were previously constructed? But what poetry did McKim's classicism express? The architecture of empire. If the Fair would see America enter full force onto the world stage, what better setting could there be than buildings that provided visual certification of our status as the rightful inheritors of the glories of Roman power?
Many charming fantasies would be skillfully designed and created in the following decades, but Louis Sullivan got it right. After getting a look at the massively scaled, Corinthian-columned main hall of what is now the Bank of America, designed in 1924 by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, one of two successor firms to D.H. Burnham and Company, Sullivan quipped, "I'm going to insist that the banker wear a toga, sandals, and conduct his business in the venerated Latin tongue."
In planning as in architecture, pragmatism was Burnham's strong suit. He did not tilt at windmills. In her introduction to a 1993 reprint of the Plan of Chicago, Kristen Schaffer speaks of sections of an early draft in which Burnham wrote extensively about the social issues facing the city and called for such progressive measures as day-care centers and adequate public washrooms. When he wrote of health care, he could have been Barack Obama. "The vast amounts of money that hospitals and their equipment have cost have been frittered away. . . . Has the time come for the state to take up this matter as a whole and deal with it in a comprehensive matter?"
But here's the kicker. None of these sections made it into the published plan, nor, as best Schaffer could tell, did he publish these opinions, before or after, anywhere else. The price of being an insider is that you have to respect the limitations and prejudices of the crowd you run with. If let yourself get too far ahead of them, they stop following. Burnham had become very shrewd in forging broad coalitions that encompassed the greater public while taking care not to alienate the prejudices of the powerful.
In the last analysis, for all its bravura, the Burnham Plan is an object lesson in the limitations of long-term planning. Like most planners that followed him, Daniel Burnham was a poor prophet. The future he envisioned was but an extension of his present reality - tamed, improved and much, much bigger but not different. Not the city fragmented and emasculated by sprawl. Not the city, its boom days long past and much of its middle class fled to less troubled pastures, that became the dumping ground for the poor and the quarantine zone for urbanism’s toxic mistakes. To be a truly great planner, and I’m not sure we’ve ever really had one, you have to fantasize not only about what could be, but anticipate all the things that could go wrong, because, inevitably, many of them will. If you could acheive that, however, you'd less likely to be lionized than burned as a witch.
The most vibrant cities are usually those that foster open debate and an energetic clash of ideas. Unfortunately, the architectural component of the Burnham celebration has served mostly as a reminder of Chicago's enduring behind-closed-doors style of institutional politics.
This February the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced a competition for the design of a memorial to Burnham, to be constructed in front of the Field Museum. Would it be a quest for fresh ideas, open to the unknown as well as the prominent? Nope—just 20 firms were invited. Why a memorial, as opposed to honoring Burnham with something that actually addressed a need, like a restored crossing at Queen's Landing east of Buckingham Fountain, a nod to Burnham's vision of a grand Congress Street promenade all the way to the lake? There's no evidence such a question was every considered. (We've written about the competition in detail here.)
The submitted designs were withheld from public view, even after the three finalists were named in April. Though the memorial will be built on public land, a competition spokesman told the Tribune's Blair Kamin, "We want to let them keep their ideas to themselves." It was only after the winning design, a striking concept by Chicago's David Woodhouse Architects, was unveiled in June that the public finally got to see all the entries. Wouldn't want to risk a public debate that might challenge the wisdom of a handful of insiders, would we?
A bizarre apartheid characterizes the selection of architects for the Burnham centennial celebration. The AIA ran its competition as if it were a paranoid medieval guild, obsessed with secrecy and shutting out all but American competitors. Meanwhile over at Millennium Park, where the powers that be decided to celebrate the centennial with two temporary pavilions, a parallel ghetto was established: Europeans only, no American architects—and more to the point, no Chicago architects—need apply. More about that later.
Scrambling to Relate the Burnham Pavilions to Daniel Burnham: the Phantom Diagonals.
The architects have been paddling furiously to come up with a way to link their striking fantasies to Burnham. Van Berkel was the more honest. When Blair Kamin asked for one, his initial response was, "Ummmmmm . . . that's a good question." By the time of the formal dedication, both architects were clinging for dear life to the idea of the diagonal, reflected in the Burnham Plan's proposed boulevards, as the missing link. In van Berkel's case, it's the diagonals of the openings in his otherwise rectangular pavilion. In Hadid's case, it's the theoretical placement of her pavilion on the axis of one of Burnham's diagonal thoroughfares, extended to the Millennium Park site.
In actuality, the diagonal boulevards were a failed component of the plan. The prime executed example, the Ogden Avenue extension from North Avenue to Clark Street, was torn up in the 1960s; it was deemed a disruption of the flow of Chicago's traditional street grid, and sparsely used to boot.
But you can see the architects' dilemma. The streets of Chicago are laid out in a grid, while the very idea of the grid is poison to contemporary architects, who believe it eviscerates the imagining of bold new architectural forms. Yet the grid is inherently democratic. Everyone gets the same tabula rasa. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who won this year's Pritzker Prize, understands the dynamic. "The buildings," he writes, "packed densely in their right-angled grid, looming up in the sky, individualistic, in love with themselves, anonymous, reckless, tamed by the straightjacket of the grid."
Historically, diagonal streets have often been an instrument of authoritarian power. The angled boulevards that Baron Hausmann rammed through Paris in the 1800s not only served to improve sanitation and create scenic views but functioned as expressways to speed military forces into the city whenever the rabble needed quelling. They also had the benefit of making the city center more attractive to the rich, who muscled the troublesome poor into the city's outer districts. In Chicago, Sheridan Road served a similar purpose. At a time when often violent labor unrest gripped the city, it gave Chicago's millionaires the confidence that if things got bad, troops could pour down quickly from suburban Fort Sheridan. It's as easy to see Burnham's angled boulevards serving the same purpose as it is difficult to imagine stockyard workers ever being able to afford to live in any of the elegant buildings shown lining them.
If you've allowed yourself to wonder why a commemoration of a plan of Chicago by one of Chicago's most important citizens would be off-limits to Chicago architects, put yourself at ease. A new set of cultural gatekeepers is here to save we yokels from our parochialism.
Over the last few years Chicago's cultural institutions concerned with architecture have been turned over to people for whom the very idea of an inherently significant Chicago architecture, or even of a "modern" Chicago architecture, is an absurdity. Even Greg Dreicer, vice president of exhibitions and programs at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, who was rash enough to allow me to guest curate a recent exhibition there, will expound at the drop of a hat on why the "schools" of Chicago architecture, in the late-19th century and mid-20th, are a myth.
More dogmatic are two key movers in the Burnham pavilions process, Joseph Rosa and Robert Somol, who share a slavish devotion to theory, fantasy and European modernism that's about as far from the spirit of Chicago architecture as you can get.
At a June symposium, Rosa, curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago, laid out their basic premise: since "Burnham interpreted Parisian streetscapes and Haussmann's way of thinking, we thought the most logical thing to do [would be to] invite two European designers to come and look at Burnham, misread what he did, learn from what Burnham was about. . . . We compiled a list of avant-garde, buildable architects that we thought would be a great asset for a temporary pavilion in the city."
Somol, director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was less polite. In introducing van Berkel's superb lecture at the school in April, Somol indulged himself in a self-described "rant," in which he ridiculed those with the temerity to inquire—and here his voice dropped to the imagined whisper of a cabal of insolent conspirators—"why no Chicago architects?"
"It basically translates," said Somol, "to 'why not me?' Except that would be too selfish to say out loud, and so it's reframed as, 'Why no Chicago architects?'"
Of course, in a city that today boasts such supremely talented trailblazers as Jeanne Gang, Krueck & Sexton, and John Ronan, to name just a few, and an output of world-famous modern architecture that includes the world's tallest building in Dubai and a huge mixed-use project in Abu Dhabi that produces more energy than it consumes, you might be forgiven for asking the question even if you're not an architect angling for work.
But in Somol's fevered intellectual caprices, a cross between Alice in Wonderland and George Orwell, Chicago architecture is essentially made to disappear.
"You could well ask," Somol continued, "'How Chicago is Chicago architecture?' and perhaps conclude: not very." Somol spoke approvingly of a provocative essay, Chicago Frame, by scholar Colin Rowe. According to Rowe, there was no truly modern architecture in Chicago at the time of Sullivan, Burnham, and Root because the architects were simply messenger boys for the local developers who commissioned them. They created the steel frame only because they were taken in by the slick salesmen of the rolling mills, who were looking to unload product. It wasn't until their ideas, irremediably tainted by the stain of commerce, were made clean by the holy water of European modernism that they attained validity.
To ideologues like Somol and Rosa, actually building things is secondary to what Somol calls "the high ideas of architecture," which Rowe saw embodied in such fantasies as Mies van der Rohe's unbuilt 1922 design for an amoeba-shaped glass skyscraper or, most famously, in Le Corbusier's "Radiant City," which would have destroyed most of central Paris for a utopia of glass skyscrapers sprinkled along a continuous belt of parkland that was the most potent expression of architectural fascism this side of Albert Speer. It was less about idealism than advancing the interests of the emerging automobile industry.
When Rosa and Somol talk of a "global context" they really mean Europe, with a few South American ringers thrown in for balance. Vital and exciting things are emerging from young architects in China and Japan, but Asian architects were nowhere to be found in UIC's most recent and otherwise excellent architects' lecture series, The Chicago Way.
Make no mistake. As Ben Nicholson recently reminded me, there is an element of fantasy - a big one - in the Plan of Chicago. If the vision captured in Jules Guerin's spectacular renderings aren't fantastic, including that Civic Center with its massive dome, nothing is. But the name on this year's centennial celebration is not Jules Guerin, but Daniel Burnham, and for good reason. Those renderings were a marketing device, window dressing to help sell to the public the very real Burnham plan, which, far from being a fantasy, is an incredibly dense compendium of facts, figures and analysis.
With Burnham, architecture was about practicality and pragmatism; in the hands of Rosa and Somol it's become all about glib intellectual parlor games of misreading.
It's amazing how we've come full circle. At the close of the 19th century we had a Chicago architecture that rejected the European model of the Beaux Arts, only to have that model triumph with Burnham's 1893 Columbian Exposition.
After the fair, Burnham locked himself into a library with a young Frank Lloyd Wright and offered him an all-expenses paid education at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, with a job waiting for him on his return. "I can see," Wright remembered Burnham telling him, "all America constructed along the lines of the Fair, in noble dignified classic style. . . . The Fair should have shown you that Sullivan and Richardson are well enough in their way, but their way won't prevail—architecture is going the other way."
Wright had a habit of embellishing stories toward his own glory, but I believe him when he says he turned an astounded Burnham down. "No, Mr. Burnham . . . I can't run away."
A hundred years later we're back at the beginning. A band of devoted Europhiles would have us believe that the glory of Chicago architecture is delusional bunk, and the only true path to the future is through London and the Netherlands.
Somol's condescending recommendation was that we follow the example Frank Lloyd Wright set when he introduced Mies to Chicago in 1938 and simply declare Hadid and van Berkel Chicago architects. "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mies van der Rohe," said Wright, going on to add that if it weren't for him, "there would have been no Mies—certainly none here tonight. I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. You treat him well and love him as I do. He will reward you."
And Mies did. But of course he earned the right to be called a Chicago architect, making the city his home, building north south and central, and, drawing on the work of Burnham & Root and Adler & Sullivan, creating what many have come to consider the second Chicago School.
And what was Wright's reward? He had two very active decades of work still ahead of him, with such iconic projects as New York's Guggenheim Museum, but he never received another important Chicago commission. (Could this be Somol's secret plan for Chicago architects?)
Wright was right about Mies, however, and he might also have summed up Daniel Burnham best: "He was not a creative architect, but he was a great man."
Last week Blair Kamin reported that the Hadid pavilion had fallen almost hopelessly behind schedule. The original contractor had been replaced and a new opening date of August 1 had been set, six weeks into the planned 19-week existence of the temporary structures.
Like pretty much everyone else, I'm hoping they make it and we get to see Hadid's vision in full flower. If, however, we get to August 1 with completion still nowhere in sight, I suggest this:
Tear down the construction tent. Rip away all the pretty fabric. Let the bare lattice of that amazing aluminum tube frame stand alone as the celebration's most potent and faithful symbol—of failure, to be sure, but also of openness and honesty, a symbolic liberation from the dead weight of Somol and Rosa's intellectual baggage. As with the best of Burnham's vision and Chicago's architecture, Hadid's frame is spare and strong and beautiful; it rings true down to the very bone.
P.S.: One of the truly great products of the centennial is the spectacular Without Bounds or Limits: An Online Exhibition of the Plan of Chicago, produced by the Art Institute, which makes available a wealth of original documents, including galley proofs, the original outline, and Burnham's amazing 310-page handwritten draft, which contains the previously unpublished sections on public service issues.
And in case it was ever in doubt, the plan is now officially a Great Book. The Great Books Foundation has just published a centennial edition, with an introduction by Carl Smith, author of another essential book on the topic, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City. The foundation promises that it offers better reproductions of the plan's graphics than we've see previously; it's available in a paperback version at $39.95 as well as in hardcover for $125.
Coming next: a Post-Mortem on the Burnham Centenntial Year
© 2009 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.