At a moment when architecture, urban design, and urban planning are focused on the phenomenon of global megacities, which are made possible by global finance and networks and made necessary by rapid urbanization, Drawing the Future: Chicago Architecture on the International Stage, 1900–1925 offered an important historical perspective (Figure 1). An illustrated exegesis on the ways in which urban design and planning principles, formal architectural devices, and building technologies traveled between Chicago and Europe via Canberra, Australia, the exhibition positioned the winning entry to that city’s Federal Capital Design Competition, by Chicago architects Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin in 1912, as the hinge on which these exchanges turned immediately before and after World War I.
Curated by David Van Zanten, with Ashley Elizabeth Dunn and Leslie Coburn, Drawing the Future was a sequel to the Block Museum’s Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature exhibition in 2005. Both exhibitions drew heavily upon the rich legacy of drawings gifted to Northwestern University by Marion Mahony Griffin. In addition to material from the Art Institute of Chicago and other collections, Drawing the Future also borrowed extensive materials from the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern. The exhibitions and their accompanying catalogues demonstrated the depth of materials and scholarship at Northwestern relating to Chicago’s progressive architectural movement in general and the Griffins in particular. While the earlier exhibition focused exclusively on the work of Mahony, whose important contribution to architecture had not been attended to by architectural historians until relatively recently,1Drawing the Future sought to contextualize the work of the architectural couple within a broader conversation about progressive urban planning and architecture almost a century ago.
The exhibition opened with the Griffins’ plan for Canberra, which situated a monumental City Beautiful urbanism within the context of an open landscape of hills and water. Despite the fact that neither of the architects had been to the site, these features provided an underlying ordering system for the axial planning of the city as a whole, placing the capital complex along the axis of two hills, fronting a lagoon formed from the water system. The work for Canberra was displayed in the context of renderings for the 1907–8 Plan of Chicago, establishing a contrast between the attitude toward nature embodied in each scheme, as presented in the approach of their delineators, Marion Mahony Griffin and Jules Guérin, respectively. An aerial view from Otto Wagner’s Die Großstadt (The large city; 1910) suggested the European context. The second room’s collection of Chicago progressive architecture as seen through Mahony’s drawings of houses by Wright, Walter Burley Griffin, and herself provided the context for the Canberra proposal’s attention not only to landscape and topography but also to the setting of buildings within nature. As Van Zanten states in the catalogue of the first exhibition, “It must be emphasized that this new Chicago architecture was to an extraordinary degree one of drawings.”2 Through Wright’s Wasmuth Portfolio, with Mahony’s rendering techniques, an exhibition of the Griffins’ work in Paris and of their Canberra scheme in Lyon, both in 1914, and the couple’s travels to promote the competition for the Canberra parliament building, European architects and planners were exposed to their work. With entries to the competitions held by the Chicago City Club in 1914 and 1916, this second room also illustrated how progressive architects looked beyond Daniel Burnham’s monumental city to the qualities of the neighborhood and residential life. Proposals by American architects William Gray Purcell and George Elmslie for the Canberra parliament building demonstrated how progressives favored bold geometric massing over classical ornament for monumental structures. This dialogue between the architecture and urban planning of the Beaux-Arts/City Beautiful tendencies on the one hand and progressive architecture on the other ran through the exhibition, without being articulated as one of its specific themes.
The third room of the exhibition contrasted the Griffins’ residential work with proposals by European architects, most notably Tony Garnier’s Une cité industrielle, first exhibited in 1901 and 1904 as part of his work for the Prix de Rome and published in 1917, while he was architect of the city of Lyon. As with the Griffins’ interest in domestic and neighborhood life, Garnier’s Quartiers d’habitation demonstrate a shift from monumental Beaux-Arts and City Beautiful buildings to simple geometries stripped of ornament, also seen in the houses designed by the Griffins in Castlecrag, Sydney, in the 1920s, exhibited in the fourth room. The European context was also represented by work by Hermann Billing, Otto Kohtz, Wenzel Hablik, and Bruno Taut, although the link between these largely utopian works and the larger themes of the exhibition was not made clear.
The exhibition closed with postwar projects. These include Robert Mallet-Stevens’s drawings for Une cité moderne (1922), a purely domestic landscape with no overarching urban organization, and two perspectives from Ludwig Karl Hilberseimer’s Hochhausstadt (Highrise City; 1924), a city of repetitive residential slabs, industry, and transportation. These proposals seemed to represent for the curators the unfortunate demise of the progressive project—“an international architectural experiment”—after World War I, resulting in urban visions devoid of both grand symbolic vistas and proximity to nature.
Drawing the Future presented a counterargument to the narrative associated with the movement of European modern architecture to America, via the Museum of Modern Art’s International Style exhibition of 1932, a moment more often considered a forerunner to contemporary globalization. While this argument is important, and the exhibition went part of the way toward demonstrating how “architects and urban designers participated in conversations about the building of the modern city and were partners in a broad effort to reformulate the architecture and planning of the future metropolis,” the installation itself, which suggested the Griffins as the critical link in this exchange, did not hang together. Whether this was because the exhibition was too compressed to cover adequately the complex argument being pieced together by Van Zanten, which was better elaborated in the catalogue, or was trying to follow too many threads simultaneously—about progressive urbanism, the simplification of architectural form and the abandonment of detail, and the development of concrete construction methods—is unclear. It is also conceivable that the exhibition was too dependent on the Block Museum’s own collections, as illuminating as they may be. This being said, as contemporary representations of “transnational exchange” are associated with architectural forms and rendering techniques only possible in an era of digital exchange and production, it was refreshing to see the elaborate and detailed renderings and ideas that managed to travel around the globe a century ago.
David Van Zanten, ed., Drawing the Future: Chicago Architecture on the International Stage, 1900–1925 (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2013), 128 pp., 74 color illus. $35.00, ISBN 9780810128989
See, for example, Anne Watson, ed., Beyond Architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin in America, Australia and India (Sydney, Australia: Powerhouse Publishing, 1998); David Van Zanten, ed., Marion Mahony Reconsidered (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
Debora Wood, ed., Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2005).