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Abraham Ritchie: Chicago Planned and Unplanned


Chicago’s citywide celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago has been underway all year, but has really increased in visibility and activity over this summer. If you go anywhere downtown seeing something about the Plan of Chicago is virtually unavoidable, there are the pavilions in Millennium Park, a myriad of exhibitions at many of the city’s institutions, and a slightly creepy, computer generated 3D model of Daniel Burnham’s head graced the entrance to the central Harold Washington Library. Behind the hype and the flash of the celebration is a real opportunity to learn about the legacy of the 1909 Plan and think about what plans Chicago is currently making for the future.

Color plate from The Plan for Chicago. Jules Guerin, delineator; Daniel Burnham and Edward Herbert Bennett, architects. Plan of Chicago, Plate 132: View Looking West of the Proposed Civic Center Plaza and Buildings, Showing It as the Center of the System of Arteries of Circulation and of Surrounding Country, 1908. On permanent loan to the Art Institute of Chicago from the City of Chicago.


There’s a lot to celebrate about the Burnham Plan and what it did for the city. It gave Chicago its lakefront parks that are enjoyed by all the very moment that weather permits after a long winter (and especially by those in Grant Park over the weekend at Lollapalooza). Parks were planned not only along the picturesque lakefront but also radiating out from downtown; these eventually became our current forest preserves. Burnham’s plan also shaped the city itself by unifying Michigan Avenue into a contiguous street and creating a major route for traffic in the creation of Wacker Drive. The rectilinear grid of Chicago’s streets is an asset to the lost and also a result of Burnham’s plan. The very nature of the city and some of its most beloved and valued features are a product of Burnham’s vision for the city.

Officially, the celebrations of the city and its plan are under the auspices of The Burnham Plan Centennial organization, which itself is comprised of virtually every cultural institution in the city in addition to the many others. Even the City of Elgin and Aurora are partners in the centennial celebration. But given the vested interests that are involved in this event, a strong flavor of boosterism can develop, and I have mentioned some of the positive aspects of the plan but I want to take this opportunity to step back and critically reflect on the occasion of the Burnham Plan Centennial.

One of the major events of the Burnham Plan Centennial has been the construction of two pavilions in Millennium Park. One is designed by London architect Zaha Hadid and the other by Ben van Berkel of the Amsterdam-based UNStudio. According to the Burnham Plan Centennial website, the structures are meant to “echo the audacious future-looking images and words of the Burnham Plan.” Each of the structures is no doubt futuristic-looking but the reality of the structures has said volumes more than their intentions.

Zaha Hadid's pavilion in Millennium Park, July 2nd.

Though the van Berkel pavilion opened on time to the public in June, the Hadid pavilion opened to the public only a few days ago, almost two months behind schedule. When I visited on August 6, 2009, it was still roped off to the public as an A/V technician worked on some malfunctioning feature. Once the Hadid pavilion did open (I’m told that happened over the weekend), the van Berkel pavilion will close as crews work to repair damage to the structure that has resulted from visitors.

Zaha Hadid's pavilion in Millennium Park, August 6th.

The lessons of these pavilions’ less-than-stellar performance are the lessons Chicago must take into the future as we consider what the next 100 years may hold. Our citizens are active and energetic, it’s what has built up this city into what it is and it’s how we conduct ourselves in our parks. The destruction that visitors have wrecked on the van Berkel pavilion is unfortunate but not at all unforeseeable. Our future plans must take into account the public at its best and at its most chaotic, we need durable plans that account for the unexpected or even the expected. The long delayed and overly technical Hadid pavilion may prove to be a futuristic architectural wonder, but its reality illustrates that we need practical and expedient solutions to our shared problems in the city, whether that be crime, corruption or pollution. We need to start working on these now, not somewhere down the line.

There’s a lot to celebrate about the Burham Plan and there’s a lot to think about too. It’s impossible to have a celebration of a city plan without boosterism, especially in Chicago where civic pride runs high. But while we’re celebrating we should not forget that there is a lot left to do and even more to anticipate.

--Abraham Ritchie, City Editor, ArtSlant Chicago

Posted by ArtSlant Team on 8/9/09

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