This Image Matters: Urban Planning, Architecture and The World’s Columbian Exposition – Chicago

World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, c1893

The World’s Columbian Exhibition, held in Chicago in 1893, came at a time of rapid growth and industrialization in the United States. It’s scale, and it’s attendance, surpassed all previous World’s Fairs. It became a symbol of the burgeoning nation, and a fully constructed template of what its cities could be.

Some of the country’s greatest minds came together for the fair’s design and implementation, their work creating echoes that could be heard in industry, arts and urban planning for decades to come.

Overseen by Daniel H. Burnham, and designed by such talent as Frederick Law Olmsted, the exposition grounds featured neoclassical buildings whose brilliant white facades earned the campus the nickname, The White City. The progressive and comprehensive design fused landscapes and promenades with structures and sculptures, foreshadowing a future where planners and architects would join forces to create a fully integrated urban design scheme.

It was the beginnings of the City Beautiful Movement, a philosophy of architecture and planning that promoted beauty and monumental grandeur as a way of fostering moral and civic virtue in a city’s residents. Municipalities began focusing on beautifying areas of the city of which they had control, including streets, municipal art and public building and spaces.

The planning and design principles of the movement spread into many of the major cities of the time, creating monumental urban centers that have withstood the test of time. It gave birth to the National Mall in Washington DC, Cleveland’s Public Square, and Detroit’s Cultural Center, all influenced by the direction of Burnham himself.

The movement Burnham began with his orchestration of the Chicago World’s Fair came to a climax in that very city 15 years later, when he drafted the Plan of Chicago 1909. It was the first modern, comprehensive city plan created in America.

There the foundation was laid for a future of highly integrated urban planning, and from those roots sprung the modern American city.

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