July 8, 2009

Classical Architect Memorialized with Sterile Modernism

Architectural Record reports this week that the firm David Woodhouse Architects has won a competition to design the memorial to Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Surprising to no one, the sponsor of the competition, AIA Chicago (American Institute of Architects), has chosen to memorialize one of the strongest proponents of classical architecture in the United states with yet another banal and derivative modernist memorial. It hardly surprises me because the AIA, champion of the modernist architectural establishment, constantly seeks to promote modernism as the only possible form of architecture acceptable in our "modern" times. Using the a memorial to one of the greatest proponents of classical architecture, barely seems cynical, but given the sophistry of most architects it is hardly astounding that they would make such a bold claim.

The AIA find this fitting memorial to Daniel Burnham.

The focus of the competition should have given one pause, as the competition stated that the memorial's objective was:

To build a lasting and notable memorial that will inspire and educate the public, and honor the memory and importance of Daniel Burnham and his Plan of Chicago

The competition did not think it prudent to focus on his contributions to classical architecture as a whole, the Chicago Exposition of 1893, and the numerous grand classical places he created, from the Museum of ScienceChicago, to the National Mall and Union Station in Washington DC. and Industry in Instead, the jury exhibited an ignorance of these contributions and chose a memorial that supports only a vision of Burnham as proto-modernist.

The city of Chicago reflected on a blank wall.

DWA’s winning design central feature is a barren granite wall, ala Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial, a move that was hailed by the press as daring in the 1980’s but remains as sterile now as it was then, but has since become such a ridiculously overused cliché. In the walls facing the lake and the Field Museum is traced the Plan of Chicago in “ribbons of burnished stainless steel” with sledgehammer subtlety. A life-size statue of Burnham stands next to the walls, unadorned and without pedestal, standing like a shabby professor before the blackboard.

The highly polished wall reflects the skyscrapers of the Michigan Avenue street wall and the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago proclaiming that this was the work of Burnham. This of course is false.

The architect’s own website describes that this wall “directs attention outwards towards the city – showcasing Burham’s vision by connecting us to its vibrant, unfolding reality.” The problem is the vista of downtown Chicago has little or nothing to do with Burnham. Chicago’s downtown, replete with what is now Grant Park, skyscrapers and the gridiron, was long in place before his 1909 plan.

Burnham's vision of "Paris on the Lake" is far from realized.

Burhnam’s plan, little of which has been executed, instead focused on creating grand public places like he created at the World’s Fair. Tree lined avenues lined with appropriately scaled and detailed buildings linked these places, from Lake Michigan to a civic center with a magnificent city hall fit for an imperial capital as Chicago saw itself (there is now a massive highway interchange at this very spot). The vision that Burnham saw was one of a Paris on the Lakefront, but again, the design ignores this and instead celebrates a vision that was not Burham’s.

Further proof of this motive is in the architects description of the memorial. Woodhouse claims that the

Memorial's design is rooted in classical precedent (the Athenian Acropolis itself has a diagonal approach up an incline past an off-center cubic volume to a central pedimented portico)”

Such foolishness abounds in modernism, claiming that a ridiculously stripped down, asymmetrical and random plan is classical simply because one can find such things in ancient places. It is a one of the great logical errors to take accidents (things that are not essential) to be essential principles. Certainly a certain asymmetry was to be found in classical architecture, is found where other circumstances warrant. The example given forgets the Old Parthenon, destroyed by the Persians in the first invasion, was on center, but Pericles respecting this sacred place, left this ground clear.

This is classical scheme?

But this is only a continuation of the narrative, that modernism is classical or at least grew as a natural consequence of the classical, claiming Burnham as your own is a good way to. Holding that modernism grew naturally out of classical architecture is a useful argument when confronting the common man who rejects such monstrosities, but is highly cynical considering that the basis of modernism is the rejection of classical tradition. It takes another kind of mendacity to simply ignore the facts for the furtherance of such a dogmatic view of architecture. It is a sad testament that a memorial to a classical architect, its winner and most of the entries serve to reinforce the commonly held theme of the inevitable advancement of modernism, co-opt classical architecture to the service of modernism.

A further insult is that there were a few good classical designs actually appropriate to the content of this memorial. It is a shame that the Richard Driehaus put up the money to sponsor this competition, given his support of the Driehaus prize for classical architecture, but it is an added shame that two classical schemes got the short shrift.

I leave you with images from those schemes, who were among the 20 finalists, either of which would have enhanced and beautified the city. The firm Hammond, Beeby, Rupert and Ainge, submitted the first scheme which evokes both Burham’s civic center in spirit both in design as well as in the rendering. The last submitted by James McCrery Architects who worked with noted sculptor Alexander Stoddart, this design would have graced Chicago with some of the best sculpture in the world since Daniel Chester French’s Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park.

Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge's design evoking the rendering of Burnham's civic center.

The memorial evokes the architectural language of the Beaux Arts.

James McCrery's Scheme focuses on beautiful statuary placed prominent in he park.

July 2, 2009

Streetcars: Made in the USA?

I don't normally post on transportation issues, our good friends over at GGW do such a good job on the issues. However once in a while something great comes up I have to share especially when it involves my home state of Oregon. There has been a lot of talk about streetcars and how American cities can emulate the good lessons of Europe's streetcar renaissance, one question has been who's going to build them. DC has some (long delayed) plans to install a single streetcar line, but the cars and technology come from the Czech republic. I was delighted to see however that Portland's new streetcars they have installed are home grown, built by Oregon Iron Works right there in the great Northwest.

An American, Oregonian made Streetcar rolls off the line.

The company was motivated by the good experience with Portland's streetcars, but a little irked that there were no US manufacturers, so they decided just to build their own. I have to say, the cars look just as attractive and convienient as any found in Europe, and doubtless delivering such trams across town has to be cheaper and faster than delivering them half a world away. Such ingenuity and entrepeneurship ought to be applauded and rewarded, perhaps the next streetcar DC buys could be "Made in Oregon?"

Trams are a key component in building a beautiful city in my opinion, they make for safe, clean and quiet transit, quite opposed to the armada's of SUVs and fleets of rumbling buses and trucks*. A city can have proper public spaces only when people, not cars, dominate the public realm, and having effective and attractive ways to get people there is key to that. I'm happy that an American, and specifically Oregonian, company is helping lead the way.

*Trucks need not be part of the city either. Dresden began using street cars to keep trucks from cluttering up their beautiful city, by creating special "freight streetcars" to deliver parts to their new VW plant.

One of Dresden's windowless freight hauling streetcars.
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