Design in the White City

Big Court, Chicago Worlds Fair
Big Court, Chicago Worlds Fair

I've just finished reading the best-selling historical novel Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, about the development of the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. I picked it up out of interest in knowing more about Chicago history, and the book does a really outstanding job of bringing the physical reality of the city to life, giving great detail about how Chicago would have been experienced in the 1880's and 1890's. The book helped me to visualize what life must have been like for my great grandfather, who immigrated at that time and grew up on the South Side along with hundreds of thousands of other immigrants who were flocking to Chicago's booming industries. But the book is also an excellent rumination on the power of Design. Chicago won the world's fair in 1890 (beating out NYC, Washington DC and St. Louis), just three years before the fair was set to open. Once Chicago was chosen as a venue, a local citizens' committee of 250 prominent men was created to help steer and promote the fair, and the city formed a corporation with a 45-member Board to finance and build the fair.

The Board appointed a local architect named Daniel Burnham to lead the project. In essence he would become the principal and lead designer (as well as project manager). As you would expect, local politics immediately began to enter the equation as the groups became embroiled in arguments about exactly where in Chicago the fair should happen. By the time Burnham got the go-ahead to begin planning the chosen site, there was less than 2 years left to go about building a world's fair from scratch. Sound like any design projects you've ever worked on?

Too much was at stake in Burnham's career for him to decline the challenge, though I suspect many of us would have given up in the face of such a seemingly insurmountable task. Ambitiously, Burnham solicited a team of some of the top US architects of the day, a group of East Coasters who were quite dubious about helping podunk Chicago put together a world class project. He assembled his reluctant lean design team, eventually winning them over using the pivotal support of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who had designed Central Park and many other significant public commissions.

The entire team was, frankly, freaked out by the seeming impossibility of the deadline before them, an absurdly short span of time in which to design, engineer and build a fair expected to host 27 million people over its 6 month lifespan and out-do the French, who had put on a smashing world fair in 1889 with the show-stealing Eiffel Tower as it's coup de grâce.

The team rallied and put together a plan for 6 majestic main buildings and an overall landscape, which would be further populated by another 200 or so smaller buildings covering a square mile. But the designs came in behind schedule, pushing construction perilously close to the deadline. And throughout the project, Burnham and his team continued to face many barriers and slowdowns caused by the myriad of committees and stakeholders representing local, national and international interests. In the end, the fair went up, and had considerable success, but not without many cracks behind the veneer and a tremendous risk of outright failure. (The Ferris Wheel, the fair's crowning glory and answer to Paris' Eiffel, was not completed until 2 months after the fair opened.)

I provide this outline in order to illustrate an important and integral aspect of design work that is so commonly overlooked. Despite having a dream design team, this was not enough to ensure the project's success. Yes, the design of individual buildings themselves were works of art, but they almost didn't get built because there was not time or resource to commandeer the various people, systems and decisions that needed to be in place from the very beginning. What makes Devil in the White City such a good read is the suspenseful incredulity that this project ever successfully came together.

For me it is a strong fable of the importance of managing stakeholders well—or the risk of not doing so. The communication to and involvement of stakeholders is a sticky issue for designers. Stakeholder input is almost something of a cliché, in the sense that we all know this is something we need to solicit and nurture, and yet we often dread and avoid it, as Burnham did. How do we get what we need from stakeholders (and give them their due) without being burdended by the baggage of any number of outside groups and individuals?

I think that part of the problem is that "stakeholders" are frequently treated by designers as a secondary concern for a design project, or at worst, an afterthought. There's often such a strong sense of urgency around the immediate design problem, that we feel that we don't have the time to get bogged down by what we might see as inexpert or even adversarial input, as was the case for Burnham and his team. All we know is how much faster the work could get done if meddling busybodies kept their noses out of the plans.

Certainly, I think Burnham and his architects worried intensely about their ability to pull off a feat of technical ingenuity and aesthetic brilliance, even without the hovering presence of stakeholders. But the thing is, the stakeholders were the reason the project started out so challenged by scheduling and resources. If anything, Burnham probably didn't do enough to manage stakeholder expectations and demand appropriate involvement and accountability from them. But he had a lot to prove, and felt his reputation was at stake if he didn't miraculously succeed in the challenge. How many of us, unfortunately, have found ourselves backed into a similar corner, with a mandate for innovation under severely limited time and budget?

Burnham's biggest fear about his stakeholders was the threat of descending into "design by committee"-type dynamics, which are sure to kill any coherent vision. And yet, when and how do we involve stakeholders productively? Up-front conversations with a full range of stakeholders can actually help the designer to better understand and scope the problem. While contemporary designers often ascribe to the mantra of user-centered design, we often fail to see stakeholders as an important user group. They may not be direct users or consumers of the system being designed, but there's no way a really big project will ever get off the ground without the support and endorsement of stakeholders. They have the power to save or doom a project, and stakeholder legacies can overshadow and outlast a design, no matter how brilliant the solution is.

Inviting stakeholders to every single meeting is clearly not helpful. But involving them early on, to help shape the vision, is important and powerful for both designers and stakeholders. In Burnham's case, the design team was so much flying by the seat of their pants that the vision was almost continuously emergent, until the very moment the fair opened. And in truth, his stakeholders offered Burnham a lot of faith and forbearance—probably far more than contemporary designers would be accorded in a project of that scale. That's why it's critical to manage the designer-stakeholder dynamic proactively.

Burnham's Columbian Exposition is a good example of the challenges that  designers face in large projects. The bigger and more important a project is, the more a designer's work is going to extend beyond the boundaries of the design task itself. Design gets broadened to a much larger activity, one that must include constant communication, persuasion, and consensus-building. Out of either naivete or stubborn arrogance, Burnham was slow to catch on to this. And it could have spelt failure for his project. I suspect that these types of stakeholder-related failures are really common, but are not failures designers like to talk about. Maybe because many designers see the "stakeholder" problem as being outside the realm of their control, or maybe because the ramifications of poor stakeholder invovlement aren't felt until several months or even years after the project is completed. After all, the larger the scale and the greater the importance of a design project, the more likely there are to be vast numbers of stakeholders involved.

Photo credit: William Henry Jackson / Chicago Historical Society.