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Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Review: Building a Century of Progress

Building a Century of Progress: The Architecture of Chicago's 1933-34 World's Fair by Lisa D. Schrenk

In the realm of history, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago overshadows the Century of Progress held forty years later in the same city. Where the former is both loved and hated for its classically-inspired architecture that influenced both architecture and town planning in the years following the immensely popular event, the latter looked to the future, and in turn perhaps sealed its fate for a country that more than not embeds its technological progress in historical forms. As author Lisa D. Schrenk points out in this thorough history of the Century of Progress, this does not mean that the 1933 fair was not as influential as the previous one in Chicago. Rather, it was influential via the innovative products and construction processes found in the exhibition buildings, keeping with the fair's embrace of science, industry, and the human (or American) drive towards progress via the two.
While the fair featured the usual corporate and country exhibition halls, this influence was found the most in the model homes that littered the fairgrounds, just south of the now Museum Campus and on Northerly Island. These houses showed firsthand not only the embrace of prefabrication and atypical materials for domestic architecture, via the likes of George Keck and others, but also the appliances that would come to be standard in American homes in the years to come. Being shown to people during the depths of the Great Depression, the forward-thinking designs and contraptions showed Americans an apparent light at the end of the dark tunnel they found themselves in at the time. Not to say that everything was forward formally, particularly in the European-Modernist sense (something that predominated and was a point of contention by many critics and architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, a glaring omission at the fair), but the clean lines, unadorned facades, and bold colors and lighting of the architecture definitely favored this aesthetic.
Besides some of the houses presented in the book that appear not only brazen but extremely well-done, it becomes clear why the 1933 Fair did not have the lasting impact of the 1893 Fair, mainly the inconsistent quality of the architecture. Even those who do not appreciate the plaster classicism of the earlier fair, the consistency of the aesthetic created a very strong and immersive sense of place, something lacking in the grab-bag formalism and unimaginative planning of the later fair. In this sense, the fair's architecture failed to engage the visitor at the level of the urban. It failed to become more than an assemblage of pavilions (something many fairs since could be equally criticized of), even though it was oriented around a lagoon, like the 1893 fair.
Perhaps if the strong, megalomaniacal mind of somebody like Frank Lloyd Wright played the role that Daniel Burnham did earlier the results would have been more cohesive, but at the same time they would have been less democratic. In the end, what resulted was a fairly democratic expression of an apparently democratic but decidedly top-down theme of science, industry, and man, the trace results of which exist in most, if not all, of our homes today.

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