Drawing the Future: Chicago Architecture on the International Stage, 1900-1925


Drawing the Future: Chicago Architecture on the International Stage, 1900–1925 is an illustrated catalog with companion essays for an exhibition of the same name at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. Drawing the Future explores the creative ferment among Chicago architects in the early twentieth century, coinciding with similar visions around the world. The essays focus on the highlights of the exhibition. David Van Zanten profiles Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony ...

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Drawing the Future: Chicago Architecture on the International Stage, 1900–1925 is an illustrated catalog with companion essays for an exhibition of the same name at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University. Drawing the Future explores the creative ferment among Chicago architects in the early twentieth century, coinciding with similar visions around the world. The essays focus on the highlights of the exhibition. David Van Zanten profiles Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Chicago architects who created an influential, prize-winning plan for Canberra, the new capital of Australia. Ashley Dunn looks at the two exhibits at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, one devoted to the Griffins in 1914 and the other to the French architect Tony Garnier in 1925, demonstrating the impact of World War I on city planning and architecture. Leslie Coburn examines Chicago’s Neighborhood Center Competition of 1914–15, which sought to redress gaps in Daniel Burnham’s plan of 1909. The ambition and reach of Chicago architecture in this epoch would have lasting influence on cities of the future.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780810128989
  • Publisher: Northwestern University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2013
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 9.00 (w) x 12.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

David Van Zanten is the Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art and Art History at Northwestern University. He wroteSullivan’s City: The Meaning of Ornament for Louis Sullivan (2000) and edited Marion Mahony Griffin Reconsidered (2011).

Ashley Elizabeth Dunn is a graduate student in art history at Northwestern University.

Leslie Coburn is a graduate student in art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

Drawing the Future

Chicago Architecture on the International Stage, 1900â?"1925

By David Van Zanten, Ashley Elizabeth Dunn, Leslie Coburn

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2013 Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-2898-9



This essay documents an event and an idea. The event was a trip by the Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin, to Paris, Vienna, and London in early 1914 to arrange a competition for the design of the new Australian Parliament building in Canberra. The idea was the social and aesthetic "program" (to use their own word) which was behind their plan for the capital and which they used the trip to further.

The Griffins' journey was not a leisurely European tour but the coordination of an international impetus centering on the Parliament House design competition. The essay examines just which interlocutors the Griffins chose to promote their cause, what they hoped of their advocates, what they learned on their tour, and what they themselves left behind. The principal item that remained after their trip was a long, narrow tin box containing a set of renderings of their work. The renderings were displayed in Paris in June and July 1914, and were scheduled to be displayed afterward in Vienna. The Griffins also sent subsequently a set of their Canberra plans that were displayed in Lyon in May of that year. But defining just what they left behind is difficult because of the European appearance of the Wasmuth portfolio, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright (Studies and Executed Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright, figure 12), published in 1910 and distributed in 1911 (presented in Marion's rendering style), and the Griffins' arrival in Europe on the eve of World War I. Two male architects presented their work through the graphic vocabulary of the same draftswoman, Marion.

Furthermore, there is a thick lens through which all this is necessarily seen, induced by the emergence of a new universal architectural technology in concrete, the possibility and definition of a consistent new architectural style, and a new professional ethos holding the architect to be all-knowing, good, and rightly all-powerful.

The Canberra Competition Project

Walter Burley Griffin, after graduating in architecture from the University of Illinois in 1899, worked in Frank Lloyd Wright's Oak Park studio from 1901 to 1906. There he met Marion Mahony, who had graduated in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1894 and served as Wright's draftswoman and renderer beginning in 1895. In 1909, Wright left his wife and six children and departed to Europe with his neighbor's wife, Mamah Cheney. During his absence, Marion ran the practice for Wright's successor Herman von Holst in Steinway Hall in Chicago. Walter and Marion renewed their acquaintance there in 1909, when both worked in a drafting studio in the attic of Steinway Hall. The couple married in June 1911. Several weeks earlier, the Australian government had announced an international competition for architects and urban planners for the design of Canberra, a new capital for the unified country. Marion persuaded Walter to prepare an entry and coordinated the rendering of it. In May 1912, the Griffins received a telegram informing them that their design had won. There followed some months of confusion about whether Walter would actually be named to execute the design, culminating in a trip to Australia in August 1913. Australia appointed him as director of design and construction for the national capital on October 18 of that year, with six months' leave to wind up his practice in Chicago and to visit Europe to organize a second competition for the design of the Parliament building that stood at the center of his design.

Marion's Canberra competition drawings as a set are extraordinary to examine, even on tightly packed sliding screens in the National Archives of Australia annex outside the capital. They include fifteen large panels meant to be assembled into two four-part cross sections—one labeled "Section C–D" looking east and one labeled "Section A–B" looking north through the lagoons, both some three-by-twenty feet (figures 1 and 2). Other drawings in the Griffins' entry include a three-by-five foot elevation—a drawing of the exteriors—of the Government Group, the buildings that would house the nation's political institutions (figure 3). Still other drawings include a four-by-ten foot three-panel perspective looking south from Mount Ainslie in one large and two small sections together (figure 4). The Griffins also submitted a relatively small plan sheet (two by five feet) providing a detailed layout of the city (figure 5) and a two-sheet inscription of the plan over the topographical map of the site. (David Headon explains that the perspective was not ready on time and a line drawing for it was sent ahead, the functions of the buildings in the plan being marked on it.)

Marion did not render these drawings on paper, but on fine window-shade linen, with outlines printed in black from layout drawings now in the Art Institute of Chicago (figures 6 and 7). The final drawings were colored in a complex mix of media, ranging from watercolor to gouache, a paint in which a gum additive is mixed with watercolors to produce an opaque appearance. Marion mixed metallic powders into the gouache in silver, gold, and copper, applying the metallic paint in stripes across the lower areas of the sky (something which does not come through in photographs). She also employed this metallic gouache in the lagoon area of the plan and in the Government Group elevation, greatly thinned.

The technique varied from panel to panel as Marion and her assistants, among them Emily Hofman and her sister-in-law Genevieve Griffin, experimented and hurried to finish. Entries were due at the end of January 1912, giving the Griffins only about nine weeks to complete their work and send it by ship to Australia.

There are extraordinary explorations and subtleties in the execution of the images—the elegant Japanese-style whiplash clouds, forming long, sweeping curves over Mount Ainslie and the Government Group elevation, the echoing whiplash reflections in the Government Group water rendering, and the watercolor representation of the "autumn" foliage between Marion's sketches of colonnaded buildings, what might be called a kind of architectural staffage. The trees would not have been autumnal in fact; Australian flora is strongly multicolored all year round.

Marion's most important stylistic technique is almost invisible: the minute impasto crescents, thick applications of white paint spread across her architectural surfaces. She adopted that trick from the publication of the Austrian architect Josef Olbrich's work by the German publisher Ernst Wasmuth, and she used it in her renderings. The result is a subtle flicker.

James Weirick feels that these huge drawings are not based on Japanese prints (as is usually assumed of Marion's work) but on painted and gilded Asian screens. Marion's images are much bigger (the scale in the cross sections is 1 = 100 feet) than Eliel Saarinen's and Alfred Agache's second- and third-prize drawings on conventional paper, rendered in pen, ink wash, and watercolor (figures 8 and 9). Indeed, Marion's three-part perspective from Mount Ainslie may have been hinged, like a screen.

Others surmise that Marion's drawings are intended more as murals than as screens, taking off from the watercolor panorama of the Molonglo site provided in the competition materials, but also like a mural of fairies and herons painted by Marion more than twenty years later at the George B. Armstrong International Studies Elementary School in Rogers Park, Chicago (figure 10). In type one might compare them to Jules Guerin's architectural murals depicting international trade in Daniel Burnham's Continental Bank Hall, or to Guerin's historical scenes flanking Daniel Chester French's statue of Abraham Lincoln at his memorial in Washington. But Marion's colors are much more intense, and her surfaces are more heavily worked. Those rugged surfaces suggest that the viewer stand back to embrace them, but the extreme fineness of their detail lures the viewer slowly forward to examine them closely, first their startling architectural staffage, then the luminous building surfaces achieved by her stippling, and finally the silhouettes, reflections, and halos she evokes. This staffage of buildings—which are identified in the preliminary perspective—seems purposefully varied, from the formal classical vocabulary of the Government Group to the fantasy forms of the lagoon-front recreational structures. Walter urges in his competition text that the buildings be executed in reinforced concrete, a new and popular architectural material in the early twentieth century.

How the Griffins' Plan Worked

The overall plan was a different problem than the sections or the perspective. Walter's idea was to interweave built-up areas and parklands, spaced by the lagoons and by hilltops (meant not to be built on), from which an organizing network of axes spreads across the site. The principal axis extends from the abrupt conical Mount Ainslie to distant Mugga Mugga across the low Capital Hill. The secondary axis runs at right angles from Black Mountain on the city's western edge eastward down the Molonglo Valley. The Griffins' knowledge of the site is as amazing as their success in building within it—so dramatically proved when it was actually executed in the Molonglo Valley. One is curious to know whether they had talked with the writer Miles Franklin, then living in Chicago, who knew the site well as a child. In October 1913, after his first actual visit to the Canberra site, Walter explained:

Taken altogether, the site may be considered as an irregular amphitheatre—with Ainslie at the north-east in the rear, flanked on either side by Black Mountain and Pleasant Hill, all forming the top galleries; with the slopes to the water, the auditorium; with the waterway and flood basin, the arena; with the southern slopes reflected in the basin, the terraced stage and setting of monumental Government structures sharply defined rising tier on tier to the culminating highest internal forested hill of the Capitol, and with Mugga Mugga, Red Hill and the blue distant mountain ranges, sun reflecting, forming the back scene of the theatrical whole.

This, of course, is the tableau represented in Marion's three-part perspective. An important document of the conception of Daniel Hudson Burnham's Court of Honor for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 is the architect's pencil sketch on the back of a copy of John Wellborn Root's funeral service of January 18, 1891 (figure 11). In the sketch, what became the domed Administration Building appears as a lookout indicated by a series of concentric circles emitting a spray of sight lines down the lagoon and out into Lake Michigan past what, in the 1891 plan, was a single semicircular file of columns. Marion's use of Mount Ainslie to elevate her view, furthermore, repeats Guerin's remarkable 1907 aerial view of Chicago from over Lake Michigan created for Burnham's project to improve the city, the Plan of Chicago (figure 15).

The drawings that the Griffins executed in Chicago, however, have a more immediate context than rendering techniques used in city planning, first of all in the exploration Marion herself carried out for Frank Lloyd Wright in her 1905–6 Unity Temple representations (as Paul Kruty has documented). This technique became the signature vocabulary of the portfolio of one hundred lithographs of Wright's drawings, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwürfe von Frank Lloyd Wright, assembled in 1910 for Wasmuth, a Berlin publisher of art books (figure 12). Marion was simultaneously pushing her technique much further in her presentation work for Walter around the time of their marriage in June 1911, building off his scroll format that he originated in 1906 for Chicago Architectural Club exhibitions. And there is Marion's largely lost work as an artist and muralist—barely discernible in frustratingly vague photographs of her altar wall for the destroyed All Souls Unitarian Church in Evanston, Illinois (1904), visible in her 1916 "forest portraits" of Tasmanian landscape (figures 13 and 14), and most elaborately executed in her 1932 mural at the Armstrong School in Chicago, "Fairies Feeding the Herons" (figure 10). But for her using color was a broad enterprise—given the opportunity at the Sydney suburb of Castlecrag, she painted and stippled interior surfaces, as in the Fishwick House. Louise Lightfoot, who lived with the Griffins, reminisces that Marion flecked the interior where they lived in yellow splashes, "to bring the sunshine into the house."

The ultimate precedent for the Canberra set was not Marion's at all, however, but Daniel Burnham's Plan of Chicago drawings by Jules Guerin (figures 15 and 16). Like Marion Griffin's, Guerin's drawings are huge in format and brilliant in color (although clearly influenced by the paintings of Édouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel). These drawings were not to be mailed off in a competition. Instead, they became the elements of an amazing public unveiling of the project on July 5, 1909, in the northeast first floor gallery of the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, before publication in Burnham's gorgeous book Plan of Chicago (1909) (figures 17, 18, and 19). It was Burnham who took two steps which were to be fundamental for Marion's breakthrough: first, the adoption of great size to lift the plan from document to proclamation; second, the use of novelty in rendering style (rather than architectural vocabulary) to achieve an atmosphere of futurity. The architectural historian Christopher Vernon would add a third gift of Burnham to the Griffins: the concept of organizing a city around axes fixed by existing features, demonstrated subtly in Burnham's 1902 McMillan Commission Plan for the development of Washington, D.C., oriented on Capitol Hill and the White House, and shown much more systematically in his 1905 plan for the Philippine summer capital, Baguio.

How did the three Australian judges—only one an architect and he of little experience—manage to award first prize to the Griffins' project (even if in a two-to-one decision)? How did Minister for Home Affairs King O'Malley—though bold, socialist, and (unadmittedly) American-born—manage to accept their decision? The project was described in Walter's accompanying text as harnessing Australia's natural state and potential resources for a luminous future, and that may have been the very point. And visually the plan was tremendously lucid—you could read it at a glance and see what it was about. Conceptually, the plan was divided into its functional elements—which Walter later neatly diagrammed in his explanatory text—and arranged in the symmetrical, hierarchical pattern admired in "Beaux-Arts" planning and also evident in Chicago progressive functionalism. At the center, the capital complex and the civic and market nodes were linked by boulevards into an equilateral triangle across a trilobed lagoon (figure 20). From this matrix, further axes radiated out to a series of neighborhoods expanding outward in counterplay with the topography: an industrial suburb to the north, an elite suburb to the west, and three middle-class "garden suburbs" down the Molonglo Valley to the east. Once Walter was named director of design and construction, this lucidity of scattered units disappeared as Walter compressed the plan and bound it together with two broad, curving boulevards for practical execution.

The respected Dutch architect Hendrik Petrus Berlage visited Chicago in 1911 on a lecture tour of the United States. He presented at the Art Institute, met Griffin, and examined the Canberra plan in process. Berlage remarked of Wright's work in Zurich in 1912 that he must have been a student at the École des Beaux-Arts. The young Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) later elaborated this idea: "On sentait dans les plans de Wright la bonne école de l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts d'ici, c'est à dire, une inclination vers l'ordre, vers l'organisation, vers une création de pure architecture." (One sensed the good tradition of the École des Beaux-Arts in Wright's plans, that is to say, an inclination toward order, toward organization, toward a creation of pure architecture.) In 1912, Berlage illustrated an article on new American architecture in Schweizerische Bauzeitung (Swiss Building Journal) with the plan of Wright's Darwin Martin House. This quality of Beaux-Arts organization is even more evident in the Canberra plan in its clear separation of parts and axial interrelation.

Excerpted from Drawing the Future by David Van Zanten, Ashley Elizabeth Dunn, Leslie Coburn. Copyright © 2013 Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Director's Statement Lisa Graziose Corrin....................     vii     

Acknowledgments David Van Zanten....................     ix     

Ashley Elizabeth Dunn....................     ix     

Leslie Coburn....................     ix     

Corinne Granof....................     x     

Introduction The Canberra Design Competition....................     3     

The Ambition and Reach of Chicago Progressive Architecture David Van
Zanten....................     6     

The Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Presentation of Modern Architecture
in Paris Ashley Elizabeth Dunn....................     64     

Considering the People on the Back Streets: Urban Planning at the City
Club of Chicago Leslie Coburn....................     84     

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