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Feature Mon Nov 03 2008

An Interview with Emily Harris

Emily Harris is Executive Director of the Burnham Plan Centennial and the program director for early learning for Chicago Metropolis 2020. As part of GB's continuing coverage of the yearlong celebration, Ms. Harris was kind enough to spend some time discussing Burnham, Burnham and more Burnham...

Can you explain a little bit as to how the Burnham centennial celebration came about?

[It came out of] a dedicated group of volunteers from two organizations, the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the other was Lambda Alpha, a land economics honor society. [Lambda Alpha] is really a club of people in real estate; architects, developers, appraisers, mostly people interested in the city, professionally. They both recognized that this hundredth anniversary was coming up. Initially, there may have been two committees and I think they eventually combined and created a volunteer network called the Plan of Chicago Initiative. That group met probably for three years. In 2000 they increasing got different partner organizations involved, and they became the nucleus of the partners network we are now working with.

They got to a point where they had gotten the Chicago Community Trust and Terry Mazany who really took some leadership and thought this was really exciting, and had great potential not only for the city, but the entire region. They came to Metropolis and said "You know... the Commercial Club sponsored the Burnham Plan, the Commercial Club initially sponsored Metropolis, this initiative has such potential but it really needs leadership and needs to bring the business community, would you take it on?" Adele Simmons and George Ranney thought long and hard because that is not what Metropolis does. The theme of [the celebration] is what we do behind the scenes with policy but, we felt how could we not? They asked me if I would take it on. We formed the Burnham Plan committee in 2006 with George, Adele and Terry as the nucleus recruiting people. Also, John Bryan agreed to co-chair it with George and Valerie Jarrett. The Chicago Trust has been supporting it all along and since expanded to include a number of other donors who are providing a lot of help.

The scope of the celebration is, appropriately, quite wide. Did the centennial committee begin with this intention or did it start out as something different?

The wide scope was pretty intentional. There was an initial group of as many as 100 organizations that had signed on as partners and they were pretty city focused. Our effort here at Chicago Metropolis is "One Region, One Future"; our effort is to recognize that if we don't plan together as a region, we are nowhere. As we looked carefully at the Burnham Plan, he said the same thing. He talked about going from Kenosha to Dekalb to Michigan City, so we really felt that it was important to reflect that scope in the centennial celebration.

How was the selection of Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel made for the pavilions?

We were looking for cutting edge, really innovative thinkers, people who were bending the limits, as the do. We wanted to involve Chicago institutions and Joseph Rosa with the Art Institute has really curated this, as the thought leader, if you will. So he worked with Millennium Park to pull together a short list. With the relationship we had with two schools of architecture, Illinois Institute of Technology and University of Illinois - Chicago, we wanted the architects to be able to give back to Chicago and also, in a way, engage the next generation by teaching at those schools; whether it was a workshop or a piece to have a dialog about, the pavilions.

The timing didn't quite work out to engage the design studios in designing them but instead they would be integrated into the process. We worked with the directors at each school to see who, from the short list, they thought would be the best to work with their faculty and they made the selections.

One of your objectives is to "inspire and educate." Beyond the planning and civic governing communities how are you looking to introduce the plan to those who maybe haven't heard of Burnham beyond "make no small plans?"

That's the challenge. We've chosen to focus on specific aspects that are, to some extant, less tangible. When people think of the Burnham plan they think of the classical idiom, that phenomenal, massive civic center that never got built. What we at Celebration are hoping to get people to understand are three things. The first is regionalism. Second is to focus on quality of life as a necessity. That is, making a city that works and is beautiful with parks, with functional transportation, is what is really going to drive this economy. Its going to attract works and keep this city successful, we think that is critical. The third is the results aspect. The fact that lakefront came out of it along with Wacker Drive, Michigan Avenue. So we think emphasizing those things will be effective.

[We're involving] the Chicago Public Schools for a new curriculum for their Chicago history, also part of the social studies curriculum will be called "Chicago, Choices, Changes." For instance, when we're talking to 3rd graders is that simple message that, while [architects, city planners] know what goes into a city, others are "you mean the lakefront just didn't happen?" or "my neighborhood didn't just grow this way, somebody thought about it, somebody planned it?" So its that idea that people make choices and that you have choices today that are going influence the world the next generation lives in.

A few things strike me about the Burnham Plan's role in Chicago's history. At a time when numerous other utopian schemes were being drawn up for cities around the world, why was this plan able to stick?

Massive public relations for 25 years. The plan itself was designed to capture the imagination, the language is incredible to the last chapter where its all legal and no one can read. But the rest of it is compelling, and you can hear him making this speech. The drawings were incredible and they were beautiful at that time, maybe today they don't have the "wow" factor, but at that time they travelled all over the world. People were just amazed by them. Then they established this plan commission which was made up of 400 people. They hired Walter Moody who was a genius at promoting it. Then they created the Wacker Manual which was taught in every 8th grade classroom for 20 years. So the effort to get the bond issues and move things forward got this plan into the DNA of Chicago. Especially, during the 1920's when they were building Grant Park and everything else.

I actually just learned that at that time the Burnham Islands were under construction and then the Depression hit but there actually are indentations in the lake floor where they were starting to build them. It really is just a generation, so it really isn't that long. I think it just captured people. The language "no little plans" just make chicago a "place." To be such an architecturally self conscious city and to have a great quote we can rally around. Even funnier, we don't know if he even said it. Worldwide it really set a new mark for city planning and thinking comprehensively about a city and it probably hasn't been done as well since.

How does this fit in with the Chicago Metropolis 2020 plan?

I think the Metropolis 2020 plan that was published in 1999 by the Commercial Club is a continuation of the legacy saying "we've got think broadly, originally, big." It fills in the gaps dealing with social infrastructure issues, things that Burnham didn't address, also education. Growing out of that we also look at justice and violence. It's obviously a different day, so the plan that fit for Metropolis does takes some of the problems Burnham addressed but through a contemporary lens. He did look at issues like traffic but, how could he anticipate how the automobile would change things?

I think the plan that is going to be talked about most during the centennial will be the 2040 plan that Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is working on. I hope that it will live up to the standards that the Burnahm plan set and really be bold and comprehensive. I think the challenges are that its a public agency, it has mayors on it's board and sometimes its tough to be as visionary and take those risks.

Can you discuss some of the major partnerships between the centennial committee and other organizations? Chicago 2016?

Regarding 2016, we've had some conversations with them and they are very interest in what's happening. They will certainly be showcasing their plan during the summer. Our biggest emphasis will be when the pavilions are up from June to October and the International Olympic Committee decision will be in October, as well. I think it's good for the Olympic bid because it shows, with or without the bid, Chicago cares. Chicago cares about what we look like, how we work. The Olympic committee likes this because they are not planning this but they use Burnham as one their icons and this is happening anyway. Its not trying to sell the city, its our own pep-talk to ourselves, which is good. I think it also will raise the bar on public discussion of what we want, what kind of legacies we need from the Olympics. Worst case scenario, we don't get the Olympics. How do we keep the best of what came out of that planning and go forward? If we do get the Olympics, how do we build the constituency to make sure its as great as it can be for the legacy. If we build an Olympic village and say its going to be green and cost overruns happen, green is often the first thing to go unless you have the public saying "we said we wanted this, this is how it has to be." So I think the centennial just has the potential to raise the awareness of getting things done. The excitement, under a watchful eye, that however the plans move forward will benefit the city.

In terms of other partners, CMAP has really embraced this opportunity to really get a lot of people involved in choosing scenarios for the future of the region and they will be working on that during the summer of 2009. The cultural institutions are really stepping up to the plate. The Art Institute, which is currently showing, one by one, drawings from the plan. It is a small exhibit but its great that its accessible, [the drawings] are very fragile so they don't show them very much. [The Art Institute] is deeply involved with us for the pavilions. They are going to open their modern wing in May. I think that whole summer is going to be about architecture on the lakefront, and its going to be very exciting. The Field Museum is doing an exhibit regarding water and they are putting a regional component to it with programs and discussions. We are also working closely with school systems, as I mentioned. We have this curriculum that Metropolis developed called "Metro Joe" and there will be a whole series of partnerships around that.

Special Thanks to Elizabeth Florina and Sallie Gaines with Chicago Metropolis and the Burnham Centennial Celebration for their help in setting up this interview.

About the Author:

Carl Giometti is a Gapers Block staffer who spends his days as an urban theorist disguised as an architect. He tries to professionally and socially associate with anyone else who can enthusiastically talk about public transportation. His wife, as evidence of her fervor for urban planning, is currently asleep with their two cats as he writes this.

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monique / March 30, 2009 6:05 PM

He has explained clearly...

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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