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The World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893

This morning I excerpted from an article in the Chicago Tribune about Daniel Burnham on my Slow Painting blog. For those of you who have read The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, you will recognize his name. Burnham was the architect and visionary behind the magical Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, nicknamed the “White City” for its grand pavilions. Larson couples his tale of Burnham’s extraordinary feat with a ghoulish tale of Dr. H. H. Holmes, a serial killer who used the fair to lure victims to his World’s Fair Hotel. But it is Burnham’s story that fascinated me.

The fact that Burnham agreed to take on such a grandiose project with ungodly time and money constraints still astounds me. The obstacles he encountered came from every corner—people, politics as well as a seriously unstable construction site. His achievement wearies me just to remember reading of the complexities he faced over and over again.

He wasn’t a purist with a supremacist vision like his cohorts Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright. In many ways he steered American popular architecture into a direction that outdistanced the more subtle aesthetic orientations of a Sullivan or a Wright. He’s certainly not my favorite architect by any means, but I am fascinated by his prowess in playing the game. He shares some of his skill sets with the likes of other still controversial master builders like New York’s Robert Moses or Baron Haussmann of 19th century Paris.

Here’s a sampling of his achievements from the Architect Gallery of Architectural Art :

In 1891, Burnham planned the enormous World’s Columbian Exposition on Chicago’s south lakefront. The largest world’s fair to that date, it celebrated the 400 year anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the new world. In 1909, the Commercial Club sponsored the Plan of Chicago , again headed by Burnham who donated his services in hopes of achieving more of his own aims. Using some of his south lakefront plans and conceptual designs as a base, he envisioned a new Chicago as a “Paris on the Prairie” with French inspired public works constructions, fountains and boulevards radiating from a central, domed municipal palace.

Root’s [Burnham’s former partner] death had altered Burnham’s aesthetic compass and he no longer felt constrained by the pragmatic utility of Chicago School construction. Greece and Rome became his models for the world’s newest empire. He even sent his sons to Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts for their grounding in Classical technique. The fair had introduced middle America to a grandiose Beaux-Arts “salad” of colonnades, domes, arches and vistas. Bankers and corporate chieftains wanted just the same Olympian grandeur for their new edifices..

Louis Sullivan, considered the greatest architect of the Chicago School, never forgave Burnham for turning his back on pure structural expression in favor of the archaic classicism of the fair, calling it alternately “feudal” and “imperial.” Feeling that it would “…set back architecture fifty years,” he was nearly proved right as he watched his own career collapse after 1900 while corporate America and Daniel Burnham turned to Rome for inspiration. In his 1924 Autobiography of an Idea, Sullivan bitterly wrote: “(Burnham) was a colossal merchandiser whose megalomania concerning the largest, the tallest, the most costly and sensational, moved on in its sure orbit, as he painfully learned to use the jargon of big business.”

At his death in 1912, Daniel Burnham’s company was the world’s largest architectural firm and had become the model for countless later firms that utilized global business techniques instead of the traditional, near Medieval methods of earlier architects. He had become the head of the American Institute of Architects and been named by President Taft to be Chairman of the Committee on the Fine Arts…

Frank Lloyd Wright, in his 1912 eulogy in Architectural Record , wrote: “(Burnham) made masterful use of the methods and men of his time…(as) an enthusiastic promoter of great construction enterprises…his powerful personality was supreme.”

There are times when stories like Burnham’s make my much more human-scaled challenges seem less overwhelming. For those of us who do not commandeer a flock of employees and have no need to court political favor, life in the studio seems quite unburdened by comparison. Burnham’s life is a valuable shift in perspective when dealing with deadlines, self-imposed and otherwise, starts to pinch and chafe.