Taking a cue from some of the responses to last week’s Literary Book Blog, I pulled my copy of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City off the shelf and started reading. I won’t belabor a point which has been made on numerous blogs this past week: this book is extraordinarily well-written and fits the category of literary non-fiction as well as any book I can think of. It’s a non-fiction novel (yes, they exist) and a particularly good one at that.
What caught my attention were the words of Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park and one of the key figures in planning the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Being a landscape designer, Olmsted was concerned with far more than just shrubberies and flower beds. His vision for the Exposition was one of unity or, as he put it, ‘becomingness.’
…the grounds, with all it carries, before, between, and behind the buildings, however dressed with turf, or bedecked with flowers, shrubs or trees, fountains, statues, bric-a-brac, and objects of art, should be one in unity of design with the buildings; should set off the buildings and should be set off, in a manner of light and shadow and tone, by the buildings.
It was a vision of beauty, set against the majestic backdrop of Lake Michigan. It’s a vision which, judging from paintings and photographs of the event, was largely achieved.
If Olmsted had had the chance to roam about the modern incarnation of the 1893 World’s Fair, I’m fairly certain he would have fallen immediately into one of his periodic episodes of utter depression. The designers, as they were, of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo seemed to have taken Olmsted’s vision and done the exact opposite. If there was any type of unifying theme, it seemed to be “Tacky Buildings on a Crowded Parking Lot.” Certainly, some of the buildings were, in and of themselves, impressive (especially Britian’s ‘Porcupine’ pavilion and China’s ‘Reverse Pagoda’ behemoth). However, there was no congruity, no sense of Olmsted’s “becomingness.” All the Shanghai Expo ‘became’ was a crowded, schizophrenic architectural mess.
Reading Larson’s book, the final result of Olmsted’s (and other’s) vision is conjured up in the reader’s mind cloaked in such grand majesty. It’s incredibly disappointing that no such vision or foresight seems to exist today for events such as these. This is not specifically a dig at China (although there is plenty to pick at in their planning and execution of the 2010 Expo). Many modern events in many countries seem to project this overwhelming disjointedness. There’s no majesty, no elegance, only in-your-face shock-and-awe bluntness. In the case of the 2010 Expo, a thousand buildings, some breathtaking, others tacky, but each one screaming for a moment of the passerby’s attention irregardless of its surroundings.
Larson tells a story which epitomizes this difference in sensibilities between the past and the present. The chief architects for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition have all gathered to present their visions of the Exposition’s main structures to the Grounds and Buildings Committee. As each architect stands up and shows his (they were all men; this was 1893) drawings to the room, the gasps are audible. Each is grander than the one before. George Post, one of the preeminent architects of the age, stands up and presents what is to be the largest building ever constructed. His Manufacturer’s and Liberal Art’s building will contain enough steel for two Brooklyn Bridges, contain twelve elevators, and rise 220 feet (an incredible height for that age). Post goes further than this – he proposes to top the building with a 450-foot dome, making it the tallest building in the world. There is a murmur among the gathered group. Impressive, certainly, perhaps a bit too impressive. According to Larson, Post understands at once that the dome would “disrupt the harmony of the other structures on the main court.” Quietly and voluntarily, he tells the assembled group “I don’t think I shall advocate that dome; I shall probably modify the building.”
This is the reason why the 1893 World’s Fair was such a spectacular event and why writers like Larson can write such brilliant books about it. Unlike fiction, non-fiction writers suffer under the constraints of reality. If the World’s Columbian Exposition wasn’t an awe-inspiring event, even the most talented of non-fiction writers would not be able portray it as such.
History may prove me wrong, but I have a hard time imaging any future non-fiction extolling the majesty of the 2010 Shanghai Expo.