Art Institute of Chicago
Through Dec. 15

Frank Lloyd Wright thought that Chicago “was the most beautiful city in the country,” said Paul Goldberger in The New Yorker. Many people today would agree, though few realize that the majestic downtown is largely the result of a single man’s vision. Daniel Burnham was among the country’s most famous architects at the turn of the 20th century, having designed New York’s Flatiron Building and reshaped the Mall in Washington, D.C. But the Windy City was his headquarters, and in 1909 he produced a remarkable “Plan of Chicago”—a blueprint for a socially and aesthetically uplifting urban center. Chicago is celebrating the plan’s centennial with a yearlong festival of events, including exhibitions of drawings from the blueprint. Though not all Burnham’s proposals were realized, many are now beloved landmarks: “Places like North Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier are usually teeming with people,” and Chicago’s many miles of waterfront parks are the envy of other cities.

The original prospectus was illustrated with “majestic Jules Guerin watercolors that envision Chicago as a new ‘Paris on the Prairie,’” said Blair Kamin in The preparatory drawings, dedicated to “civic spaces” that are one of Burnham’s most lasting legacies, are less awe-inspiring. Still, studying such documents creates a fascinating opportunity to compare concept to reality. “Formal gardens and a fountain modeled after Versailles” still give an elegant feel to Grant Park, the “monumental meeting place of the Great Lakes and the Great Plains” where tens of thousands gathered last fall to hear President Obama’s victory speech. As his hometown prepares its proposal to host the 2016 Olympics, the city’s planners will again be looking, for guidance, to the “order, symmetry, and power” of Burnham’s farsighted plan.