Sunday, July 25, 2010

Risen anew in China

I enjoy reading history: it is one of many important nutrients that strengthen human society and molds the common purpose and desires of our species. Indeed, one can only imagine that to the historian there must be an unmatched thrill to ordering cyclopean epochs with pen and ink.

Good history has the capacity to edify, challenge and inspire decisive action in its possessors. As for myself, I have briefly described the journey across Asia that I propose to make, but I have not yet told you its purpose: the genetic imperative that draws me to China and beyond.

My great-great-grandfather was also Daniel Burnham, an architect in the city of Chicago. He built skyscrapers, among the first of their kind in the 1800s and designed a comprehensive plan for the city of Chicago in 1909 in cooperation with Edward Bennett. The Plan of Chicago laid the conceptual groundwork for many of the city's notable features such as the lakefront, for instance.

What interests me most about Burnham and Chicago, however, is the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. One of the great world's fairs of the 19th century, the Columbian Exposition commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' contentious arrival in the Americas. Burnham served as the Director of Works, supervising the fair's construction and architectural design as it rose like a mirage along the lake shore. 27 million visitors attended the fair over the course of 6 months; a staggering number in an era without air travel and mass communications. They were greeted by the alabaster profile of the White City: an expanse of classical urban forms out of place amidst the Chicago stockyards. This columnar beaux-arts landscape was a cultural proving-ground, whispering of things yet to come in the 20th century. It was at once all-American, introducing the American public to inventions such as Heinz ketchup, cracker-jacks, and the Ferris wheel while a massive generator powered electric streetlights and brilliant neon lamps. The first commercial moving-picture was shown to an audience chewing Juicy Fruit gum, while elsewhere the zipper and mechanical dishwashers made their debut.

The international pavilions revealed more ominous portents. The German-sponsored Krupp gun exhibit displayed the world's largest artillery gun at 248,000 pounds, its barrel looming skyward with the other European pavilions dwarfed beneath. The Continental powers flexed industrial muscles at one another across the fair’s pedestrian boulevards, though war seemed unlikely. Indeed, the Columbian Exposition represented unabashed progress, fueled by an endless optimism in the potential for science and technology to shape the coming century.

The milieu of the fair must have been heady beyond belief. I can only imaging how Burnham himself felt being swept up in such a grand spectacle, as great machines labored so that for a short time the stars were eclipsed by brazen streetlamps signaling the Western world's strength and will to create a brilliant new era. Could I in my lifetime ever see a such a sight as that and be so moved as my ancestors must have been?

There have been World's Fairs since 1893. For instance, my great-grandfather was on the board of the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition, also in Chicago. It bore the cheerful motto "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms" which suggests a chilling twist the Arcadian visions prevalent 40 years earlier. Yet as 20th century progressed, the World's Fair diminished in stature particularly with the advent of permanent sites such as Walt Disney's Epcot center which embody the same spirit of futurism and international exchange albeit with a different end goal.

You may rightly ask, "Whither, then, these dreams of science and shining argent gears?"

To which I would reply, "Thus it is that what bold dreams have set in the West have risen anew in the East."

China, with all the zeal and economy applied to the 2008 Summer Olympics has already begun to host the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and I propose to go there and see it for myself. The numbers are right: China alone has spent over $44,000,000,000 in preparation for the event, (and by all means, count the zeroes) less what national governments have spent in order to put their best feet forward with brilliant and varied national pavilions. Visitors are expected to number between 70,000,000 and 100,000,000 in total, more than any other fair in history.

Reports have begun to filter in as regarding the Shanghai expo and its relative merits, but I have avoided them all. I want to go and feel childlike wonderment there; I want to feel like I'm walking in my great-great grandfather's shoes on foreign soil. By that, I don't mean China--rather, I want to feel like I am treading decades hence into the future. That is my ultimate raison d'ĂȘtre for traveling here. My eyes will be open, looking for the devices and slogans that will typify 21st century optimism. "Better City, Better Life" is perhaps something that Daniel Burnham would have agreed with in 1893, and it's a sentiment that sounds good to me now. But what of the inventions, the architecture and politics of it all? There will be no German guns or colonial empires on display, though I look forward with some reserve to seeing what the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Iran and Myanmar wish the world to see inside their sprawling pavilions. Iraq and Afghanistan stand on parade alongside them, 2 of 189 participating countries in this six-month long typhoon of nations and dreams.

Only one thing is assured: the fair will have Daniel Burnham in attendance, just as Chicago did in 1893 and 1933, watching the history go by.

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