May 5, 2009

MoCP reveals urban planning’s rough edges, good intentions

In this centennial year of Daniel Burnham’s sensational plans for the city of Chicago, a walk around the Loop bears witness to his continued presence in our lives. You can see Burnham’s legacy as you stroll down the boulevards of North Michigan and Grant Park, or along the North Bank with the two-tiered Wacker Drive in view.

These downtown landmarks are the products of Burnham’s vision of a planned city. But of all Chicagoans, perhaps University of Chicago students know best that there’s a wide gap between theory and practice. The imposition of a “plan” on a city, an entity that we have come to view as organic, almost never manages to translate all of the planner’s ideals into reality.

As part of the Burnham Plan Centennial Committee’s year-long celebrations, the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP) has brought together several artists known for their interest in urban issues in its new exhibit, The Edge of Intent. Offering an incisive exploration of the gap between urban planning and urban reality, Intent is true to MoCP form in its sensitive and critical appraisal of the impact of plans such as Burnham’s on cities and their inhabitants. Its nuanced standpoint sets the exhibit apart from the rest of the mostly self-congratulatory Burnham celebrations.

The works in The Edge of Intent reveal the fine line urban planners walk between constructive idealism and plain, misguided utopianism. In “(new) jersey,” Andrew Harrison rearranges torn-up road maps of his native New Jersey into would-be maps of utopian cities both mythological and theoretical, drawing a provocative parallel between famous city plans, and fairy-tale locales like El Dorado, Eden, and Xanadu. Christina Seely’s “Lux” series of long-exposure photographs of twilight in the most intensively lit global cities casts light on artificial luminescence as a useful human invention that nevertheless is inherently artificial, generating an alien, artificial glow that looks more sinister than illuminating.

The Edge of Intent also depicts the devastating consequences when urban planning strays to the wrong side of the utopian divide. Liset Castillo’s “Pain is Universal but So Is Hope” uses the simple why-didn’t-I-think-of-that concept of sandcastles to illustrate the non-viability of cities built primarily on the glory of landmarks. Her sand structures of imaginary super-cities featuring the Taj Mahal, the Empire State Building, and the Coliseum, among others, crumble into ruins. David Maisel’s aerial X-rays of Los Angeles highlight the malignant shadows cast by skyscrapers on an otherwise organic landscape. Dionisio González and Tim Long’s panoramas register the effects of urban areas on various surrounding regions, charting the continuum from the favelas to the projects in São Paulo, from the Loop to the Mississippi in the Midwest.

Ultimately, The Edge of Intent concerns itself with the status of the city citizen in these utopian plans. The exhibit brings home the point that it’s not the city-planner but the city-dweller who determines the prospects and outcome of his city. This focus on the citizen is present in Simon Menner’s triptych of photographs of the homeless in Paris, Mumbai, and Chicago. In Eric Smith’s illuminating rendition of the reclamation of Detroit’s Michigan Central Place Station—a contemporary of Chicago’s own Grand Central that has been lying in disrepair for over two decades—the resilience of humanity manifests itself in sprawling works of graffiti art festooning the station’s walls bathed in Renaissance-esque golden sunshine. With Chicago’s growth now poised to cross a watershed one way or another, The Edge of Intent provides a conceptually provocative, refined perspective on the possibilities of the city.

MoCP's website for Edge of Intent