Chicago has a problem. It is not a new problem, but as of late it has been more apparent. For a city whose motto could just as well be Daniel Burnham’s “Make no little plans…” Chicago makes very few large plans. As a result, the city seems unable to realize any plans at all.
At the time of printing, Chicago is about to lose the George Lucas Museum of Narrative Arts (LMNA) to the West Coast. Aside from the conversation of putting private institutions in our public parks (NB: All of the lakefront museums are private), the entire fiasco has brought up a slew of other issues, ones that should make everyone who cares about the built environment take pause. The first is what initially set the downward spiral of the LMNA into motion: The use of the lakefront. The discussion of this one building has all too clearly highlighted the fact that we don’t talk seriously about the lakefront as the resource it actually is: A resource that was made by and for the people of Chicago. For whatever reason, a fundamentalism has arisen that the lakefront should freeze at the shape, function, and character of an artificial line reached a century ago. So often in this argument Burnham is evoked, as if he would somehow be pleased that only a small portion of his plan is complete.
The next problem highlighted by this calamity is the city’s apparent willingness to throw away what we have. Chicago has a long history of tearing down the great buildings, buildings that remind us of when it actually was a place that made big ambitious plans. After the loss of Prentice Women’s Hospital, one would think that other eccentric icons would be given some sort of respite. It is more than shortsighted to think that McCormick Place and, for that matter, the Thompson Center are not architecturally significant and worth saving. No one would argue against rethinking and refurbishing, but Chicago would not be better without them. Rather, the city would be losing two of its most unique interior gathering spaces.
Both the protection of the shoreline and the short-term economy of the city are important, but architects understand the larger implications of the built environment. “Make no little plans” resonates with Chicagoans because they can see it every day: The city has been defined by big risks and major projects. Now that same level of ambition can be directed at the betterment of the city for all: While protecting those spaces that make Chicago so unique, architects can also envision new spaces that inspire.
Architects can’t leave the grand plans to politicians. No one is more qualified or willing to imagine a better city than an architect—but you’re going to have to fight for it.