Sunday, October 4, 2009

Make No Little Plans

Having lived most of my life in Chicago, Friday's quick rejection of big plans for the 2016 Olympics stung on a personal level only a true blood Chicagoan could feel. Throughout history, Chicago seemed plagued by a sense of inferiority or imperfection.

This is from many things: being tagged "the second city," being home to the 1886 Haymarket riots and the atrocious executions that followed (creating, in part, May Day, the international communist day commemorating the affair), being known for violent gangsters such Al Capone, mayors and politicians who sound more like WWF wrestlers than leaders - not to mention a recent Governor who caused ridicule worldwide for his unforgiving depravity - and, of course, being the town with a baseball team that has the worst non-championship streak in history (South-siders excluded).
Daniel Burnham on the terrace of his Evanston,...Image via Wikipedia

Yet Chicago was and is undoubtedly a world-class city, despite all its contradictions and complexities. Probably most essential to understanding this is the fact that it was a lure for new-school, progressive idea people at the turn of the last century, after the 1871 fire made a clean slate upon which to build. Great thinkers left the stoic old-minded places like Philly, New York, and Boston for Chicago, and thus came bold advances in architecture, urban planning, and social welfare.

One key figure who dealt with all those issues was master architect Daniel Burnham. The centennial of his 1909 Burnham Plan has been celebrated this summer in Chicago's Millennium Park by creation of two imaginative temporary pavilions from world renowned architects Ben van Berkel and Zaha Hadid.

As noted by van Berkel's firm, UNstudio, both pavilions were created "to echo the audacity of the 1909 Burnham Plan, which proclaimed, What we as a people decide to do in the public interest we can and surely will bring to pass."

Framed by Lake Michigan on one side and Michigan Avenue on the other, the van Berkel pavilion, as stated by the architect, "relates to diverse city-contexts, programs and scales. Programmatically (it) invites people to gather together, walk around and through, to explore and urban activator." At night both installations are underlit by LED and other methods, creating a dramatic visual effect.

Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan for Chicago, IL, USA
Burnham’s Plan essentially introduced a clean geometric grid to the metropolis, but with diagonal boulevards that created specific vistas throughout the city. He imagined the city as a single organism, with breath and pulse, encircled by a great spinal outer drive, and a protected lakefront at its face. But what's often overlooked was his genuine intent to serve the common citizen and the underclass.

Dr Kristen Schaffer, who teaches History of Architecture and Urbanism at North Carolina State University and author of "Daniel H. Burnham: Visionary Architect," noted in a recent lecture that original drafts of the plan reveal "an expansive social program for the less advantaged citizens of Chicago, one that was omitted from the final published version." This included measures for child care for working women, betterment of impoverished areas, and low cost access to recreational facilities. It remains unclear why these ideas were deleted. In any case, it portrays a man with not only visionary design sense, but great moral conviction as well.

The public can attend Dr. Schaffer's upcoming free lectures "Finding Burnham in the Archives: Spiritual Revelations and the Plan of Chicago" on October 8 at IIT's College of Architecture, and on October 11 at Northwestern University.

The van Berkel and Hadid pavilions will remain on display in Chicago's Millennium Park until October 31.  

Special thanks to my friend Neil Rosario for his pavilion photos, and Lisa Milam-Perez for her info contributions. Below is an extra treat found by my wife Anne on You Tube:

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