Planning and Its Disconnects - Not Entirely What Burnham Had in Mind - Chicago at the close of the 20th Century
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?)
While the keystone of the nineteenth century was expansion, Burnham's 1909 Plan concluded, we of the twentieth century find that our dominant idea is conservation. It was a nearly fatal misreading of the future, which wound up an almost continuous era of expansion, first within - then without - the city's borders. After 1909, Chicago would continue to grow explosively, adding over a half million people in each of the next two decades, filling out the farmlands at the edge of the city and reaching a peak 3,620,000 people in the 1950 census. What followed, however, was not the consolidating urbanism that Burnham optimistically projected, but a brief plateau followed by precipitous decline.
One of the key conduits of that decline was the modern rethinking of the 1909 plan's broad boulevards. Burnham's Plan consolidated the city's twenty two trunk lines to alleviate the way the railroads sliced up the city, but in the 1950s that lesson was quickly forgotten in the rush to embrace the emerging culture of automobile and tap into the public works funds that the federal government was making available to link U.S. cities through the creation of an interstate highway system. Now it was new expressways that plowed through neighborhoods and split them apart, in the case of the Dan Ryan expressway providing a Chinese wall to separate and protect the white middle-class neighborhoods to the west from the poor, black neighborhoods to the east. More perversely, while the railroads built up Chicago's population, the new expressways functioned as a siphon, sucking panicky middle class whites out of the city to be replaced by exploited minorities and expanding blight. The émigrés in the new suburban subdivisions could watch on television as the beloved city neighborhoods they had abandoned went up in flames during the 1960s riots. By the 1990 census, the city's population density, defined by persons per square mile, had declined 30% from its 1950 peak.
Architecturally, it was easy to overlook what was happening. As both architect and teacher, Mies van der Rohe had a creativity and influence so great as to spawn a second school of Chicago architecture in the '50s, '60s and '70s, one that included global landmarks such as Mies's Crown Hall and IBM Building, Jacques Brownson's Richard Daley Center, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, and Bruce Graham and Fazlur Kahn's John Hancock Center. Yet, beyond the preserve of the glittering towers, the city was hollowing out. Planning in the '50s and '60s set the stage for Chicago becoming a negative doppelganger of the new suburban utopia.
By the 1970s, you could walk just a couple of blocks to the west or south of the Loop and find yourselves in neglected neighborhoods in steep decline. In the South Loop, the Printers Row district had been abandoned by the industry in favor of new plants in the suburbs. A twenty-two story skyscraper, the 1911 Transportation Building sat empty and abandoned. Chicago architect Harry Weese took note of the shabby, slab like hulk from the window of an airplane as it flew over the city, and he thought of his daughter's story about the lofts in New York's SoHo district that had found new life converted into apartments. By 1981, Weese had teamed with Laurence Booth, another key Chicago architect, to create over 200 housing units in the Transportation Building's homely shell. It was the beginning of Chicago's back to the city movement, to be followed by the conversion of additional loft structures and the building of the new community of Dearborn Park on the abandoned railroad yards leading into the now restored Dearborn Station.