Friday, March 1, 2013

Burnham's World

Cambridge, March 1st, 2013

Have you ever looked with a little care at the plan of the 1893 Chicago Exposition?  If I ever had (I must have, in Neil Levine's course,) I didn't remember.  If you asked me, all I could describe was the long classical axis of the Great Basin with Daniel Chester French's tall figure of the Republic at one end, Richard Morris Hunt's Administration Building at the other, and several Beaux Art colonnaded and pedimented white façades on the sides.

But that's only a small portion of the plan.  The whole fair spread on both sides of the Basin, a great deal to the north.

One of the underappreciated qualities of Beaux Arts composition is its nimble ability to take on particular demands of site and program.  In the case of the Exposition, the plan resolves the two alignments of the site--the grid of the city to the west and the edge of the lake to the east--with surprising ease.  The solution is deceptively simple: the north half of follows the grid and the south half follows the shoreline (this last one is the area of the Basin, that runs perpendicular to the shore.)  That generates a rather awkward wedge-shaped area in the middle, taken by the irregular perimeter of a lagoon (Olmsted to the rescue.)

The other major adjustment happens with the rail lines, that come from the south along the edge of the property line, splay, and make a tight turn to deadend in line with the  axis of the basin.

All of these plan maneuvers create a host of "topical" problems that the individual buildings not only resolve but take advantage of (more about that to come.) 

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