Tuesday 4 July 2017

Bioshock Infinite's Columbia and the City Beautiful Movement

At the turn of the previous century, the United States of America was undergoing a veritable cultural crisis at least as serious - if not as violent - as the Civil War. The 1890 census declared that the Western frontier had closed to new settlement, limiting the amount of available farmland and driving ever greater numbers of people into the bursting cities. By 1910, 46% of Americans lived in cities, which challenged the agrarian base that had previous defined America's economic activities. Those Americans, some 42 million people, needed to work, and found that work in factories. Factories, in turn, needed people to buy the goods they produced, creating a new culture of consumerism. However, an economic depression hit in 1893, which itself came after and during a long string of labour strikes starting with the Chicago Haymaker Riot of 1886. Advances in mass transportation allowed the better-off to retreat to the suburbs, leaving the inner cities to struggling, impoverished, working classes stuffed together in dank, diseased tenements. This decay of the city centres just as they were required to meet the needs of ever greater numbers of people created a very real problem in need of creative solutions.

In the game Bishock Infinite, Zachary Comstock suggests simply taking a whole city aloft and letting the Earth sort out its own problems. The design of Columbia, however, falls very much within one of the civic planning solutions proposed at the time in which the game is set: the City Beautiful Movement.

The guiding principle of the City Beautiful Movement was a belief in aesthetics as a moral philosophy. Beautiful environments, they maintained, would inspire civic pride and moral uprightness as citizens strove to live up to the standards of the architecture and city planning surrounding them. Charles Mulford Robinson, a journalist and leader in the movement, outlined the view that "Modern civic art desires for the beauty of towns and cities not for beauty's sake, but for the greater happiness, heath and comfort of the citizens." The chosen style of the movement's advocates was Beaux-Arts, imported from Europe. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris emphasized the principles of compositional unity and symmetry, the relationship of the elements of a building within itself and to other buildings, and the continuity of history, manifesting most frequently in Greco-Roman Revivalism. Its use would suggest that America had reached a cultural parity with the Old Country, finding a new identity as a world power now that notions of the agrarian frontier were passed. As a Neo-Classical style, Beaux-Arts was also seen to embody characteristics of order, harmony and dignity... All things that they hoped would rub off on the city's airs. In the process, the movement established the de facto official architecture of the United States.

City Beautiful's first major showcase was the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. To celebrate America's coming-of-age and articulate a new possible direction for the country on the global stage, architect Daniel Burnham used lumber and plaster to fashion a temporary city designed on the movement's principles. When Canadian architect A.T. Taylor visited the Exposition, he noted the stunning contrast between the real city of Chicago and the idealized White City:
To pass from the noisy, dirty, half-paved, half-baked chaotic city of Chicago, to the fair white city on the shores of Lake Michigan, with its lagoons and island, pleasant winding walks, fountains, statuary and architecture, is like a translation from Purgatory to Paradise.
The Exposition introduced the concept that city beautification was a thing and that city design could be an organized, orderly, planned process. It also furnished a demonstration of the process at work. The "White City" as it came to be known served as the model for numerous prospective and actualized civic plans that followed clear across North America and into Australia.

The Court of Honor, or "White City," at the World's Columbian Exposition.

Just as the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' landing, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Louisana Purchase. Like the Columbian Exposition, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition also became an opportunity to impress upon visitors and official alike the possibilities of the City Beautiful. This exposition was the largest yet held, featuring some 1,500 buildings organized in an orderly fashion by George Kessler. Duty as the Chief of Design fell to Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, who chose the Beaux-Arts style for the exposition's major buildings.

The Government Building, Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Key to the City Beautiful was not simply Beaux-Arts architecture. Buildings simply dropped wherever they may come to lie would not have affected the desired elevation of mind and healthful pursuits of the body. Designers proposed the total revitalization of city districts, razing their jumbled streets and tenements to the ground and starting anew. Their plans would establish orderly road grids with broad boulevards radiating out from hubs, squares and rounds, usually lorded over by some fountain or monumental sculpture, and a symmetrical allotment of civic centres, parks, formal gardens and parkways, with access to riverfronts and other vistas. One can see this principle in work on the meticulous maps drafted for the expositions, as well as Burnham's 1909 plan for Chicago, Thomas Mawson's 1914 plan for Calgary, Canada, and the 1902 McMillan Plan for Washington DC's National Mall.

Map of the World's Columbian Exposition.

Rendering of the World's Columbian Exposition.

Map of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Rendering of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Map of Burnham's Chicago Plan.

Rendering of the Chicago Plan.

Map of the Mawson Plan, Calgary, Canada.

Rendering of the Mawson Plan.

Map of the McMillan Plan, Washington DC.

Rendering of the McMillan Plan.

The McMillan Plan marked one of the City Beautiful Movement's greatest successes. Chaired by Senator James McMillan, the Senate Park Commission (its official title) set about to redevelop the National Mall into a showpiece befitting the business of national importance conducted there. Dissatisfaction with the area's Victorian architecture and winding gardens received pubic airing beginning in the 1880's, picking up steam towards a 1900 meeting of the American Institute of Architects, who put their considerable talents towards solving the problem. The McMillan Commission was created the following year, chaired by Senator McMillan and including Burnham alongside architect Charles F. McKim, landscaper Frederick Law Olmstead Jr., and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, all of whom distinguished themselves with the World's Columbian Exposition. The group travelled abroad to study the palaces and gardens of Europe for inspiration, drawing much of that from Versailles.

While the proposed plan would have affected the redevelopment of the entire city of Washington DC - and still guides much revitalization today - its main effect was to create a cruciform north-south, east-west axis centred on the Washington Monument. At the north end of the north-south axis would sit the existing White House and at the east end of the east-west axis would sit the existing Capitol. The plan called for the placement of the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of this axis, which it eventually was when completed in 1922. Land along the axes was cleared out to create open green spaces and the reflecting pool stretching between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. The Jefferson Memorial was added to the opposite shore of the tidal basin that stood at the southern end of the north-south axis in 1943. These four cardinal buildings - White House, Capitol, Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials - were all constructed in Neo-Classical, Beaux-Arts style.

The Victorian gardens of the National Mall, facing towards the US Capitol, 1908.

View towards the Lincoln Memorial from the Washington Monument.

View towards the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial.

The White House.

Thomas Walter's 1865 rendering for the proposed east extension of  the US Capitol.

City Beautiful was considered appropriate by civic boosters for relatively newer and younger settlements, especially in the British colonies. Mentioned previously, the Mawson Plan would have seen the recreation of Calgary, Canada's relatively rustic, sandstone and brickwork prairie vernacular downtown core into a Neo-Classical waterfront. The only vestige to reflect that project is Central Memorial Park with the 1912 public library financed by money from the Carnegie Foundation. Likewise, the towns of Canberra and Melbourne in Australia were slated for remodeling in the prevailing fashion. The movement never truly took off in Canada or Australia, one of the speculative reasons being that it never had any prominent spokespeople there. Most comprehensive plans fell by the wayside in favour of much smaller successes, like the establishment of local parks, tree plantings along boulevards, and community gardens.

Again, a rendering of the civic centre in the Mawson Plan of Calgary, Canada.

Rendering of the Canadian Pacific Railway Plaza in the Mawson Plan.
The Calgary Tower sits where the clock tower would have been.

Rendering of the market district in the Mawson Plan.

The "Carnegie" Library, Calgary.

Central Memorial Park, Calgary.

The movement was never as popular as it was in the United States. Seen in itself as a solution to the ills of growing urbanization, City Beautiful became part of the larger "American Renaissance." Active in the final decades of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th, the American Renaissance was the period of rising to the cultural, political and economic challenges that faced the United States, like the close of the Western frontier, urbanization, industrialization and poverty. In response, nationalists conceived of a United States come of age, heir to Greco-Roman civilization and Renaissance humanism, the equal of Europe in economics and politics. It was the "Gilded Age" of which Mark Twain wrote, a veneer of opulence over very deep troubles. The American Renaissance actualized itself in the development of consumerism and foreign American expansionism, and it was given an architectural façade in the City Beautiful Movement.

By the end of the First World War, City Beautiful principles were falling under greater and greater criticism. Central to these criticisms was the accusation of naiveté. The movement largely focused on civic centres, streetscapes and parks, which is fine except that functional cities require attention to pragmatic concerns like sanitation, public transportation and traffic flow, housing, and the distribution of commercial and industrial zones. Neither did City Beautiful schemes make any serious provision for dealing with the effects of poverty and crime. Its belief in aesthetics as a moral philosophy assumed that good morals would follow good art - beauty uplifting the soul and enlightening the mind - which did nothing to address the systemic problems lying at the root of societal ills. Eventually the City Beautiful gave way to the City Efficient, which concentrated on those pragmatic concerns and established the model of modern city planning and zoning.

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