Lantern slide illustration of the Plan of Chicago: Looking north on the south branch of the Chicago River
Lantern slide illustration of the Plan of Chicago: Looking north on the south branch of the Chicago River Credit: Reproduction © The Art Institute of Chicago, Ryerson and Burnham Archives

The Chicago that Daniel Burnham confronted in 1909 still mirrored the one described by Rudyard Kipling back in the 1880s: “I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago. The other places do not count. . . . Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages. Its water is the water of the Hugli, and its air is dirt.”

Burnham had already created plans for Cleveland, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Manila, but in Chicago he ratcheted up the stakes. He took the measure of the ills Kipling described, which had only grown as the city population doubled to more than two million inhabitants. Streets, railroads, parks, slums, waterworks, schools, and more—he imagined a City Beautiful that would tame Chicago’s anarchic complexity and enrich the lives of its citizens. No one before and few since achieved so exhaustive a census of the workings and potential of a great city as can be found in Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, whose centennial is being celebrated with an incredible wealth of events throughout the city.

Above all else, Burnham was a world champion consolidator, an intellectual magpie who had a kind of genius for identifying centers of power, cultural as well as political, and pulling them together into a forceful consensus. That’s how he brought together the city’s business elite to create and execute the 1909 plan, and 16 years earlier it was how he’d molded an initially skeptical roster of America’s top architects into the sleek design machine that produced the spectacularly successful 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the “perfect city” that was both the foundation for all his future city planning and a cautionary tale of the limits of pragmatism.

Burnham was a great organizer. He could plan a building that fit the needs of the client like a glove. He knew almost instinctively the best place to put the washrooms and the elevators and how to lay out the offices for peak efficiency. He pioneered a new, more corporate way of practicing architecture that anticipated the global mega-firms of today. He was a genius at analyzing what needed to be done and arriving at the most efficient way of doing it. This talent was nowhere more in evidence than when he turned a useless swamp on the far south side of Chicago into the greatest international exhibition the world had ever seen.

He was also a great motivator. His first partner, John Wellborn Root, was a bit of a dreamer, a social charmer who loved to improvise on the piano. Burnham’s burning ambition, his ability to inspire, and his closeness to his partner were all expressed in what Thomas S. Hines’s biography says he uttered as he paced below the bedroom where Root had just died: “I have worked. I have schemed and dreamed to make us the greatest architects in the world. I have made him see it and kept him at it—and now he dies—damn! Damn! Damn!”

No question about it, Daniel Burnham was a force of nature.

Still, a pedestal is a poor place for taking the measure of a man. If there’s been one deficiency in Chicago’s exhaustive, exuberant celebration of Burnham and his plan, it’s the absence of skepticism. Burnham needs his shadows, lest who he was and what he believed disappear in the blinding klieg light of ceaseless praise. So, let’s try to round out the picture; and as we do we’ll talk a bit about local hucksters who’ve hijacked the celebration to advance an agenda that has little to do with Burnham but everything to do with trashing the legacy of the astounding architecture Burnham and his fellow architects created in late-19th-century Chicago.

Strictly speaking, Burnham himself wasn’t a great architect. At an Art Institute lecture earlier this year, Burnham scholar and groupie Kristen Schaffer made a snide reference to Louis Sullivan writing of himself in the third person, as if this somehow certified his inferiority; but Sullivan, with all his failures, was ten times the architect. There’s a line of astonishing creative energy that runs from his huge projects with Dankmar Adler through the designs he did for small midwestern banks in the desperate final years of his life.

Burnham was completely dependent on his design partners—even the Plan of Chicago, though popularly remembered as the Burnham Plan, was cowritten by the young architect and city planner Edward Bennett. Because of Burnham’s need for collaborators, the quality of the work careens wildly over time. With Root he created trailblazing works of genius, including what is possibly Chicago’s single greatest building, the original Monadnock. After Root died unexpectedly in 1891, Burnham partnered with Charles Atwood to create a few more masterpieces, above all the Reliance Building, a gleaming glass jewel box at State and Washington. But Atwood, sickly and an opium addict, soon died too, and after that it was a decidedly mixed bag. There were any number of good buildings: the Butler Brothers warehouses on Canal, the sparkling Railway Exchange (the Reliance writ large) on South Michigan, Washington’s majestic if overblown Union Station. But genius had abandoned Burnham, and the years to come also produced such curiosities as the pompous Peoples Gas Building across from the Art Institute.

In Root’s original designs, the buildings for the 1893 World’s Fair were to be a refinement of the type of progressive architecture that came to define Chicago after the fire, polychromatic and human-scaled. After Root’s death, however, Burnham fell under the spell of Charles McKim, one of the great east-coast architects he’d persuaded to join his design team. McKim’s work was defined by the Beaux Arts style, which mimicked classical architecture, and he turned out to be even more obstinate and forceful than Burnham, soon convincing him that this was the only possible template for the fair’s design.

A disgruntled Louis Sullivan famously remarked, “The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century.” He saw the honesty of Chicago School architecture being displaced by a cynical separation of structure from appearance. In Greece and Rome, columns and stone walls had been a building’s structure. In McKim’s hands, they were a veneer that concealed the structure behind it.

To be sure, poetic expression is the mother’s milk of great architecture—what is a Greek column but an expression of the tree trunks with which buildings were previously constructed? But what poetry did McKim’s classicism express? The architecture of empire. If the fair would see America enter full force onto the world stage, what better setting could there be than buildings that provided visual certification of our status as the rightful inheritors of the glories of Roman power?

Many charming fantasies would be skillfully designed and created in the following decades, but Louis Sullivan got it right. After getting a look at the massively scaled, Corinthian-columned main hall of what is now the Bank of America, designed in 1924 by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, one of two successor firms to D.H. Burnham and Company, Sullivan quipped, “I’m going to insist that the banker wear a toga, sandals, and conduct his business in the venerated Latin tongue.”

In planning as in architecture, pragmatism was Burnham’s strong suit. He did not tilt at windmills. In her introduction to a 1993 reprint of the Plan of Chicago, Kristen Schaffer speaks of sections of an early draft in which Burnham wrote extensively about the social issues facing the city and called for such progressive measures as day-care centers and adequate public washrooms. When he writes of health care, he could be Barack Obama. “The vast amounts of money that hospitals and their equipment have cost have been frittered away. . . . Has the time come for the state to take up this matter as a whole and deal with it in a comprehensive matter?”

But none of these sections made it into the published plan, nor, as best Schaffer could tell, did he express these opinions anywhere else. The price of being an insider is that you have to respect the limitations and prejudices of the crowd you run with and not get too far ahead of them. That said, with the plan Burnham demonstrated his capacity to forge broad coalitions that encompassed not only the powerful but also the public.

The most vibrant cities are usually those that foster open debate and an energetic clash of ideas. Unfortunately, the architectural component of the Burnham celebration has served mostly as a reminder of Chicago’s enduring behind-closed-doors style of institutional politics. This February the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects announced a competition for the design of a memorial to Burnham, to be constructed in front of the Field Museum. Would it be a quest for fresh ideas, open to the unknown as well as the prominent? Nope—just 20 firms were invited. Why a memorial, as opposed to honoring Burnham with something that actually addressed a need, like a restored crossing at Queen’s Landing east of Buckingham Fountain, a nod to Burnham’s vision of a grand Congress Street promenade all the way to the lake? Though the memorial will be built on public land, the submitted designs were withheld from public view, even after the three finalists were named in April. A competition spokesman told the Tribune’s Blair Kamin, “We want to let them keep their ideas to themselves.” It was only after the winning design, a striking concept by Chicago’s David Woodhouse Architects, was unveiled last week that the public finally got to see all the entries. Wouldn’t want to risk a public debate that might challenge the wisdom of a handful of insiders, would we?

A bizarre apartheid characterizes the selection of architects for the celebration. The AIA ran its competition as if it were a paranoid medieval guild, obsessed with secrecy and shutting out all but American competitors. Meanwhile over at Millennium Park, where the powers that be decided to celebrate the centennial with two temporary pavilions, a parallel ghetto was established: Europeans only, no American architects—and more to the point, no Chicago architects—need apply. More about that later.

The results, now on display in Millennium Park, are two stunning works from global superstars Ben van Berkel of UNStudio and Zaha Hadid, neither of whom had built in Chicago before. The van Berkel is like a giant, sculpted-out slab of vanilla ice cream, with scooped cascades melting down from the rectangular roof to an identically rectangular floor, creating openings that frame views of the surrounding Chicago skyline. The Hadid is still under construction (see Deanna Isaacs’s column, The Business, this week for more on that), but we’re promised it will eventually be an alluring conch shell of stretched fabric. I’ve already fallen in love with the cobweb frame of aluminum tubes that you can still see in the construction tent as it disappears beneath the fabric.

The architects have been paddling furiously to come up with a way to link their striking fantasies to Burnham. Van Berkel was the more honest. When Blair Kamin asked for one, his initial response was, “Ummmmmm . . . that’s a good question.” By the time of the formal dedication, both architects were clinging for dear life to the idea of the diagonal, reflected in the Burnham Plan’s proposed boulevards, as the missing link. In van Berkel’s case, it’s the diagonals of the openings in his otherwise rectangular pavilion. In Hadid’s case, it’s the theoretical placement of her pavilion on the axis of one of Burnham’s diagonal thoroughfares, extended to the Millennium Park site.

In actuality, the diagonal boulevards were a failed component of the plan. The prime executed example, the Ogden Avenue extension from North Avenue to Clark Street, was torn out in the 1960s; it was deemed a disruption of the flow of Chicago’s traditional street grid, and sparsely used to boot. The very idea of the grid is poison to contemporary architects, who believe it eviscerates the imagining of bold new architectural forms. Yet the grid is inherently democratic. Everyone gets the same tabula rasa. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who won this year’s Pritzker Prize, understands the dynamic. “The buildings,” he writes, “packed densely in their right-angled grid, looming up in the sky, individualistic, in love with themselves, anonymous, reckless, tamed by the straightjacket of the grid.”

Historically, diagonal streets have often been an instrument of authoritarian power. The angled boulevards that Baron Hausmann rammed through Paris in the 1800s not only served to improve sanitation and create scenic views but functioned as expressways to speed military forces into the city whenever the rabble needed quelling. They also had the benefit of making the city center more attractive to the rich, who muscled the troublesome poor into the city’s outer districts. In Chicago, Sheridan Road served a similar purpose. At a time when often violent labor unrest gripped the city, it gave Chicago’s millionaires the confidence that if things got bad, troops could pour down quickly from suburban Fort Sheridan. It’s as easy to see Burnham’s angled boulevards serving the same purpose as it is difficult to imagine stockyard workers ever being able to afford to live in any of the elegant buildings shown lining them.

If you’ve allowed yourself to wonder why a commemoration of a plan of Chicago by one of Chicago’s most important citizens would be off-limits to Chicago architects, put yourself at ease. A new set of cultural gatekeepers is here to save us from our parochialism.

Over the last few years Chicago’s cultural institutions concerned with architecture have been turned over to people for whom the very idea of an inherently significant Chicago architecture, or even of a “modern” Chicago architecture, is an absurdity. Even Greg Dreicer, vice president of exhibitions and programs at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, who was rash enough to allow me to guest curate an exhibition there, will expound at the drop of a hat on why the “schools” of Chicago architecture, in the late-19th century and mid-20th, are a myth.

More dogmatic are two key movers in the Burnham pavilions process, Joseph Rosa and Robert Somol, who share a slavish devotion to fantasy and European modernism that’s about as far from the spirit of Chicago architecture as you can get.

At a June symposium, Rosa, curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute, laid out their basic premise: since “Burnham interpreted Parisian streetscapes and Hausmann’s way of thinking, we thought the most logical thing to do [would be to] invite two European designers to come and look at Burnham, misread what he did, learn from what Burnham was about. . . . We compiled a list of avant-garde, buildable architects that we thought would be a great asset for a temporary pavilion in the city.”

Somol, director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was less polite. In introducing van Berkel’s superb lecture at the school in April, Somol indulged himself with what he himself called a “rant,” in which he ridiculed those with the temerity to inquire—and here his voice dropped to the imagined whisper of a cabal of insolent conspirators—”why no Chicago architects?”

“It basically translates,” said Somol, “to ‘why not me?’ Except that would be too selfish to say out loud, and so it’s reframed as, ‘Why no Chicago architects?'” Of course, in a city that today boasts such supremely talented trailblazers as Jeanne Gang, Krueck & Sexton, and John Ronan, to name just a few, and an output of world-famous modern architecture that includes the world’s tallest building in Dubai and a building that produces more energy than it consumes in Abu Dhabi, you might be forgiven for asking the question even if you’re not an architect angling for work.

“You could well ask,” Somol continued, “‘How Chicago is Chicago architecture?’ and perhaps conclude: not very.” Somol spoke approvingly of a provocative essay, “Chicago Frame,” by scholar Colin Rowe. According to Rowe, there was no truly modern architecture in Chicago at the time of Sullivan, Burham, and Root because the architects were simply messenger boys for the local developers who commissioned them. They created the steel frame only because they were taken in by the slick salesmen of the rolling mills, who were looking to unload product. It wasn’t until their ideas, irremediably tainted by the stain of commerce, were made clean by the holy water of European modernism that they attained validity.

To ideologues like Somol and Rosa, actually building things is secondary to what Somol calls “the high ideas of architecture,” which Rowe saw embodied in such fantasies as Mies van der Rohe’s unbuilt 1922 design for an amoeba-shaped glass skyscraper or, most famously, in Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City.” That high idea would have destroyed most of central Paris for a utopia of glass skyscrapers sprinkled along a continuous belt of parkland. It also would have been the most potent expression of architectural fascism this side of Albert Speer.

When Rosa and Somol talk of a “global context” they really mean Europe, with a few South American ringers thrown in for balance. Vital and exciting things are emerging from young architects in China, but Asian architects were nowhere to be found in UIC’s most recent and otherwise excellent architects’ lecture series, “The Chicago Way.”

With Burnham, architecture was about practicality and pragmatism; with Rosa and Somol it’s become about fantasy and glib intellectual parlor games of misreading.

It’s amazing how we’ve come full circle. At the close of the 19th century we had a Chicago architecture that rejected the European model of the Beaux Arts, only to have that model triumph with Burnham’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. After the fair, Burnham locked himself into a library with a young Frank Lloyd Wright and offered him an all-expenses paid education at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, with a job waiting for him on his return. “I can see,” Wright remembered Burnham telling him, “all America constructed along the lines of the Fair, in noble dignified classic style. . . . The Fair should have shown you that Sullivan and Richardson are well enough in their way, but their way won’t prevail—architecture is going the other way.”

Wright had a habit of embellishing stories toward his own glory, but I believe him when he says he turned an astounded Burnham down. “No, Mr. Burnham . . . I can’t run away.”

A hundred years later we’re back at the beginning. A band of devoted Europhiles would have us believe that the glory of Chicago architecture is delusional bunk, and the only true path to the future is through London and the Netherlands. Somol’s condescending recommendation was that we follow the example Frank Lloyd Wright set when he introduced Mies to Chicago in 1938 and simply declare Hadid and van Berkel Chicago architects. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mies van der Rohe,” said Wright, going on to add that if it weren’t for him, “there would have been no Mies—certainly none here tonight. I admire him as an architect, respect and love him as a man. You treat him well and love him as I do. He will reward you.”

And Mies did. But of course he earned the right to be called a Chicago architect, making the city his home, building throughout it, and creating what many have come to consider the second Chicago School.

And what was Wright’s reward? He had two very active decades of work still ahead of him, yet he never received another important Chicago commission. But he was right about Mies, and he might also have summed up Daniel Burnham best: “He was not a creative architect, but he was a great man.”

Last week Blair Kamin reported that the Hadid pavilion had fallen almost hopelessly behind schedule. The original contractor had been replaced and a new opening date of August 1 had been set, six weeks into the planned 19-week existence of the temporary structures.

Like pretty much everyone else, I’m hoping they make it and we get to see Hadid’s vision in full flower. If, however, we get to August 1 with completion still nowhere in sight, I suggest this:

Tear down the construction tent. Rip away all the pretty fabric. Let the bare lattice of that amazing aluminum tube frame stand alone as the celebration’s most potent and faithful symbol—of failure, to be sure, but also of openness and honesty, a symbolic liberation from the dead weight of Somol and Rosa’s intellectual baggage. As with the best of Burnham’s vision and Chicago’s architecture, Hadid’s frame is spare and strong and beautiful; it rings of truth down at the very bone.

PS. One of the truly great products of the centennial is the spectacular “Without Bounds or Limits: An Online Exhibition of the Plan of Chicago,” produced by the Art Institute, which makes available a wealth of original documents, including galley proofs, the original outline, and Burnham’s amazing 310-page handwritten draft, which contains the previously unpublished sections on public services and issues. You’ll find it at

And in case it was ever in doubt, the plan is now officially a Great Book. The Great Books Foundation has just published a centennial edition, with an introduction by Carl Smith, author of another essential book on the topic, The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City. The foundation promises that it offers better reproductions of the plan’s graphics than we’ve see previously; it’s available in a paperback version at $39.95 as well as in hardcover for $125.