Chicago, lake-sided and magnificently flat, gridded to the horizon, studied and troubled, is ever ready for reimagining. What better moment than the impending 119th anniversary of the Burnham Plan?
While architectural culture is still thick with ambivalence about big plans, we know we love them – if only in secret – even when they spring from mosaic collusions of an infinity of independent tininesses. Perhaps we realize them too much as a form of negative capability, patching up somebody else’s disaster-driven tabula rasa.
Can we meet the challenge, whether by confrontation, embrace, or avoidance? As urban designers, our duty is to enlarge the conversation, to try the impossible, to assure that no speculation is forbidden. So let’s speculate in a big way about a future for Chicago via a methodology that will assure surprises. Let the great gapped grid be the game-board for our designs. Let the togetherness and collectivity of the enterprise multiply the congeniality and dodginess of the prospects! Let us work together – many schools, many teachers, many students, many critics, many sites – to piece together a polyvalent fantasy, a magnificent cadavre exquis for the South Side of Chicago! And then let us consider how to make sense out of it.
The South Side is both rich and dangerous and a remarkable museum of city building in both its magnificence and catastrophe. Once bowered in luxury, it became the scene of a great American internal migration as industrial jobs attracted African Americans from the south to hoped-for opportunities. When the economy itself went south after the Second World War, the mismatch between population and prospect led to miseries of unemployment and decay. The usual solutions were applied – carceral housing projects, policing, neglect – with the usual results.
Here’s the skinny. An academic consortium – including CCNY, UIC, IIT, SAIC, GSD, and the U of C – will combine forces to operate on a set of vacant sites large and small on the South Side: U.S. Steel, Michael Reese, the railway land along the Chicago River south of Roosevelt, the former site of the Taylor homes, the Museum District, the gapped neighborhoods of Woodlawn, Washington Park, and Bronzeville, Calumet Harbor, the massive infrastructures of slashing road and rail, and other tractable places. Students will choose among these sites to create new neighborhood or building projects based on ideas of community and harmony. While these will spring from strong social ambitions, we will, in the urban design studio, press the boundaries of local autonomy by imagining neighborhoods that find a very high measure of self-sufficiency – in jobs, housing, commerce, culture, recreation, energy, food, water, waste remediation, manufacture, movement systems, oxygen, temperature, and the many other key elements of urban respiration.
The studio will examine many strategies of combination, using individual designs and research to test and combine with the work of others pursuing work on both the same and different sites. Collectively, we will pursue the kind of ambitious intervention that characterized the optimistic age of Burnham and the Columbian Exhibition while rejecting the idea of producing any strict singularity of vision. Our ambition is to accumulate alternatives and to invent new forms of reciprocity and concord. We will make many big plans. And small ones. And we’ll see what results!