Bruce Graham and the Chicago 1992 World's Fair

March 17, 2010

The ground rumbles when a titan falls. That certainly was the case when news of architect Bruce Graham's death at age 84 made the rounds last week.

Graham led the Chicago office of SOM from the 1960s through the late 1980s, designing a collection of buildings any one of which could have made an architect's career:‚  Sears Tower, John Hancock Center, the Inland Steel Building--he took over the design from SOM's Walter Netsch who went west to work on the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs)--and more. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin superbly wrapped up Graham's life here, by the way.

A week after Graham's death, the aforementioned rumbles sent me searching inside the big box of unbuilt Chicago architecture stuff I've collected over the past decade. I found these‚  seldom-seen renderings of Spectacle that Never Was: the Chicago 1992 World's Fair.‚  Graham led efforts that ultimately created the images you see here.

Planned in the 1980s, the fair--titled The Age of Discovery--was hoped to do for Chicago what the 1893 World's Fair had done here a century earlier: bring the eyes of the world to the Chicago and reposition it as a world class city. The fair would have sprawled from Roosevelt Road to nearly 35th Street, roughly the same size and locale as the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair. The event was aimed at turning the Near South lakefront into an urban paradise of green space, improved water access and fanciful buildings left over from the fair.

While the 1992‚  World's Fair Corporation sought financing, political backing, Graham set up design workshops in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to stimulate ideas of how the fair would look.‚  In these salons, Graham assembled the best architectural talent of the day--any day--including Robert A.M. Stern,‚  Stanley Tigerman, Helmut Jahn, Peter Eisenman, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and Thomas Beeby, a Chicago architect. Even a pre-fame Frank Gehry was involved. Jahn did an elaborate pedestrian bridge. Moore did a towering harbor statue of Columbus.

Looking at the images now, I'm struck at how much the renderings for a fair designed to set Chicago right for the future looked so deeply into the past. And it's also surprising that Graham would lead an effort in such architectural nostalgia. But then again, modernism had fallen out of favor and Postmodernism--with its references to traditional and classical form--was ascendant. The plans were an escape and hard reality, combined.

In December 1982, the Bureau of International Exhibitions in France picked Chicago (and Barcelona) to host the 1992 World's Fair.‚  But Chicago's fair would get pulled down over the next five years as backers failed to raise the private capital nor win the millions in public dollars needed. Newly-elected Mayor Harold Washington--fighting a council war on one hand while trying to bail the city out of red ink with the other--was hardly a champion for a fair conceived under his predecessor Jayne Byrne. And neighborhoods were rightfully clamoring for a bigger piece of public infrastructure funding.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan appointed a committee to examine the fair's public finance schemes. When the committee found the potential for the fair to cause multi- million-dollar shortfalls rather than turn a profit, the Age of Discovery's chances were snuffed.

Graham was unhappy. In Betty J. Blum's brilliant 1997 Art Institute Oral History interview with Graham, the architect blamed Mayor Washington and politicians for abandoning the fair.

Graham's death merits a new look at the fair. So does this: fair plan is a pretty good piece of visionary master planning. It seeks to knit the near South Side to the lakefront, add considerable land to the shoreline and off-shore and turn Meigs Field into open space (something that wouldn't happen for almost another 15 years). The plan even suggests moving the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive westward to create a museum campus...about a decade before it would actually happen.

The plans also show Graham knew cities are vital and must be well put-together.‚ ‚  In my day job, I saw a presentation this week of an urban plan that has the sweep, scope and vision to drastically remake the city for the better, if adopted.‚  I can't talk about it, though. But I will say the presenter was a protege of Graham's. There are others.‚  And that's a legacy equally as important at the buildings Graham left behind.