Monday, July 30, 2007

The Devil and Daniel Burnham

One of the reasons cited by the Hyde Park Antiquarian Society for preserving the unremarkable Doctor's Hospital is that it "addresses Jackson Park in exactly the way Daniel Burnham envisioned in his Plan of 1909." Now, Daniel Burnham was an important architect, but it's far from clear that he was a good city planner, and it's on the basis of the latter creds that we're being asked to value this building. The fabled and grandiose 1909 plan is breathtaking but utterly unrealistic, outdoing in its vision what the French Baron von Haussmann actually accomplished in the wake of his massive tear-down projects in the Paris of the 1860s, and rivaling some of the more outlandish schemes of later German modernists.

Which is all to say that, if you take one good look at the above illustration, you'll see that Burnham was crazy. His vision of Chicago
as a beaux-arts European capital (Paris), as Northwestern University's urban historian Janet Abu-Lughod argues, was completely at odds with the attempts of Chicago's architectural luminaries, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, to find an architecture that was native to the American experience. The 1909 plans reflect the megalomania of one man, backed by the newfound riches of Chicago's industrial and commercial elite enamored with the cultural conventions of Old Europe.

It was also completely at odds with the economic reality of Chicago as one of the nation's top 3 industrial cities with an enormous and frequently striking proletariat, none of which figures in the pleasing aquatints of the 1909 Plan. Chances are that Louis Sullivan would not have thought much of the Euro-philic Georgian revival style of the Doctor's Hospital, to say nothing of the 1909 Plan, modeled as it was on the Neo-Classical, wedding-cake monstrosities of the 1893 World's Fair, which Sullivan is on record as loathing.

So when we are asked to appreciate the value of the Doctor's Hospital because it "addresses Jackson Park in exactly the way Daniel Burnham envisioned in his Plan of 1909", l
et's remember that this wouldn't have carried much weight with Louis Sullivan, and that there are good reasons why precious little of that Plan ever materialized -- because it had very little to do with the social or economic reality of Chicago as a meatpacking, steel-forging, Haymarket Rioting town resembling Paris only in the minds of a small elite.

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