>Chicago Fails Again: The Burnham Memorial

>Eric Bootsma over at Beatus Est is reporting on a new memorial to the great American classical architect and city planner Daniel Burnham. Burnham is perhaps best known for his role in building the extravagant group of beaux-arts buildings known as “The White City”, for the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892. Sadly, little of this extraordinary ensemble survives, as much of it was torched by rioters during the Pullman Strike of 1894. However, a number of Burnham’s great buildings do survive elsewhere, including the iconic Flatiron Building in Manhattan (1902), and our own magnificent Union Station here in Washington, D.C. (1908).

The Burnham memorial will be located in the Museum Campus area of Chicago, a wide expanse of park along Lake Michigan which contains Burnham’s own Field Museum, one of the few surviving buildings of the Columbian Exposition which was moved here in the 1920’s. A competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, of which Burnham in his day was President, was held for the design of the memorial. This could have been a golden opportunity for the architectural community to commemorate one of the greatest exponents of classical architecture in the United States with a fitting monument reflective of his ideals.

Instead, as Bootsma reports, we are left with yet another Vietnam Memorial Redux. The winning design – which is utter GARBAGE – features a plain granite wall, with ribbons of stainless steel, and a statue of Burnham standing without a plinth or pedestal, as Bootsma cleverly puts it, “like a shabby professor before the blackboard.” The polished walls of the memorial will reflect the plain boxes of glass and steel that categorize Chicago today, which lack the detail and classical refinement which Burnham always sought to include in his buildings, be they a skyscraper like the Flatiron or a department store like Marshall Field’s. It is the architectural equivalent of holding a Brahms memorial concert by playing nothing but Fifty Cent.

Chicago appears once again, as happened recently with the regrettably banal and functionally ignorant expansion of the Art Institute (upon which subject I expostulated previously), to be attempting to resurrect its heritage as an important center for architectural innovation by becoming a slave to mere faddishness. There can be no doubt that Burnham himself would loathe this planned modernist memorial both in its conception and execution, and I suspect he would prefer to leave the site as it is, rather than to sully the sight lines of the expansive park with such a jumble of lefty fiddle-faddle. As Burnham famously said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.”


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