If you are unaware that 2009 is the centennial of Daniel H. Burnham’s Plan of Chicago—a richly-illustrated proposal and planning framework, significant parts of which determined the city as it is today—you’re either not an architecture person or you haven’t been paying attention. The significance of the Plan and its planner are undeniable, and hundreds of agencies and institutions throughout metro Chicago have joined forces for an all-out year-long celebration across the region. It has been virtually impossible to visit a library, museum, or cultural center in the past year without getting an eyeful of Burnham.
Part of the celebration organized by The Burnham Plan Centennial Committee was an invitation for contemporary architects to build temporary pavilions in Millennium Park (itself part of the Burnham legacy). As the Committee’s website explains, these “architectural exhibits” were intended “to honor the forward-looking spirit of the Plan of Chicago;” to “echo the audacity of the plan” with “cutting-edge architecture.” In other words, the pavilions are memorials dedicated the Plan’s ideas and their manifestations in the city, reinterpreted for contemporary consumption. As such they would reveal something about the values of the designers while revealing something about their subject, the Plan.
An emphasis on contemporary understanding of the historic document seems appropriate here, since memorials, like funerals, are staged more for the living than for the dead. They reflect contemporary needs and values in a way that, ideally, brings out the lesson of the past—good or bad. In Washington, DC, among this country’s greatest collection of memorials we find exquisite examples of this principle in practice. Exhibits in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are powerful interpretations of a devastating event. The museum accomplishes this (especially in the Tower of Faces and Hall of Remembrance), in part, through James Ingo Freed’s architecture, which is quiet and sparing, alternately conjuring the industrial character of the death camps and the classical quality of imperial mausoleums. Achieving those two goals in one building (and inspiring people to leave talking about the subject, and not its architectural framework) is no mean feat. Likewise, in the Lincoln Memorial Henry Bacon effectively used a very different architectural language, and one that probably has more in common with its capital setting than the gangly man from the Illinois prairie portrayed inside. But the dignity and majesty of the marble temple barely reaches the heights of the stirring language that flowed from Lincoln’s pen, across the Gettysburg fields, and into the heart of every sentient being who reads them on the walls within: “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. . . .” That memorial has only grown richer in time, as it accumulates a patina of experience: memory of the Great Emancipator is enhanced by the memorial’s role as backdrop for both the “I have a dream” speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as U2’s performance of their song about King during the lead-up to the inauguration of America’s first black president.
These memorials in DC are vessels for significant events and issues; weightier than a book describing a plan for a big city. But that should actually make the job easier for those designers taking on Burnham’s heritage: free from human tragedy, the subject is ripe for celebration, perhaps critical assessment, or at least the presentation of fresh insights to the Plan’s meaning or significance. What’s worth celebrating? Most people know the Plan through reproductions of the irrefutably gorgeous watercolor renderings by Jules Guerin (who also worked on the Lincoln Memorial, by the way). In the paintings we see a city of sweeping avenues and bustling harbors, miles of skyscrapers housing booming business, and majestic cultural palaces on the edge of a lake with a limitless horizon to the west. The images glow with a vision of material, cultural, political and spiritual harmony shared by all citizens, which was Burnham’s aim.
But look deeper into the Plan (and you can do so easily, thanks to the Newberry Library’s online exhibition, “Make Big Plans”), and you will find smaller illustrations of less-grand, but just as significant, ideas. Burnham’s plan included everyone in the city, and it’s pretty remarkable to see this kind of social justice presented as a city plan sponsored, ultimately, by businessmen. Burnham’s plan called for play spaces, exercise yards, parks and other amenities throughout the city; the design of streets and housing manifests an agenda that would ensure a livable city for all rungs of the social ladder. In many architecture books the pictures are the best part; in the Plan, the lush renderings enhance Burnham’s ethical design theory.The richness of the Plan offers a lot for an architect to consider a century later. I went to see the Burnham pavilions with high expectations for what kind of “forward-looking spirit” might be at the center of the designs. There’s plenty to elicit comment, since Burnham’s grand vision was implemented piecemeal, and the pieces that would benefit children, immigrants, and the working classes have never been at the top of anyone’s priorities. None such was the focus of the Pavilion designers, whose work, when judged against the potential of the Plan, is pretty disappointing. If they had been part of a project for experimental architecture, I’d count them a huge success (and it would be very cool if Millennium Park undertook just such a project that would rotate temporary structures by different architects on a regular basis to examine new ideas in architecture). But the pavilions had a higher calling, and not only did they miss the mark, but it appears that the architects considered nothing but how the purely formal aspects of Burnham’s Plan could be used as a starting point to investigate whatever contemporary professional trends they currently find interesting. Even the Committee’s best attempts to fill in the gaps can’t hide the intellectual vacuum in these projects; at best they have reiterated the opaque language presented by the architects themselves. Zaha Hadid explained that the “unexpected results” in her pavilion (unexpected by whom? Is the designer not in control of the outcome?) are created (passive voice hers, not mine) by “Superimpositions of spatial structures with hidden traces of Burnham’s organizational systems.” Just which “spatial structures”? What justifies the concealment of an organizational system that is founded on an idea of clarity and order, and where lines of reciprocal sight have an aesthetic and cultural payoff, focusing our attention on institutions that house shared values? Ben van Berkel of UNStudio wrote that his über-functioning pavilion relates to different contexts, programs, and scales. It invites people to gather, walk around, walk through, explore and observe (the same program as a donut shop—just without the amenity of donuts). Its greatest merit is framing “unexpected views” of the city (which, by corollary, also means unexpected obscurations of the city). Burnham directs us to look at those monuments which might inspire; UNStudio offers a haphazard, arbitrary experience. The cantilevers are, Berkel says, inspired by the Robie House. This is an interesting choice: that Wright house was built the same year as the Burnham Plan was published, and is aesthetically about as far away as it is possible to go from Burnham this side of Behrens’ Berlin or Loos’ Vienna. For all their “cutting edge” qualities, the pavilions are part of the heritage of garden follies going back at least to the eighteenth century when British lords decorated their manor estates with petite pagodas and tiny temples housing no specific functions. As strictly sculptural exercises, Hadid’s taut, curving orb and UNStudio’s harder-edged composition are interesting, especially in the comparisons they invite. I found UNStudio’s ungainly project uncomfortably reminiscent of models of molars and incisors that you might find at the dentist’s office. Alternately, Hadid’s cave-tent was soft, elegant, inviting and luminous. (You can see being built in this nifty video: http://blip.tv/file/2472672/.) When I visited the pavilions this summer they were magnets for tourists and families, especially energizing for kids who were running around and through them. But this kind of use/abuse was not planned for, and the keepers of Millennium Park had erected barriers to keep people away from the more fragile parts of the pavilions. Was their addition an “unexpected” and “energizing” force?
Ultimately, the style of the pavilions is not an issue; Burnham’s book is about principles; it steers clear of absolute stylistic decrees. But an examination of the Plan’s illustrations, as well as the actual buildings that came out of Burnham’s office, reveals his preference for traditional elements of architecture put to new functions, scale, structures. Burnham’s was a socially forward-looking plan, but one which drew from a legible heritage. It was a plan with meaning, intended for broad consumption and enjoyment. The pavilions, on the other hand, did not necessarily inspire with their “superimpositions of spatial structures” and “urban activators.” Like the designs of the pavilions, the designers’ oblique language (long the tool of professions to raise a barrier between practitioners and public) is strongly at odds with Burnham’s own writing. The straightforward directive in his book, which anybody can understand, is summed up in chapter 8: “And after all has been said, good citizenship is the prime object of good city planning.”Does this sentiment make Burnham eligible for a permanent monument? Yes. And he already has one; it could be improved with the addition of a small sign on the stairs of the Art Institute, positioned to make the reader face south, down Michigan Avenue, which is defined by a hard edge of skyscrapers that face the park across the street. There I would inscribe the words that appear on the tomb marker of another architect who had a significant, positive impact on another great city: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice (“If you are seeking his monument, look around you”).