THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by Nathan Worcester
From a distance, a city skyline and a mountain range inspire similar feelings of awe. When examined more closely, however, they evoke the sublime in different ways. The mountain range, rising within and out of nature, is spectacular largely because it was shaped by forces that are independent from human consciousness.
The city skyline, in contrast, can largely be defined as the cumulative product of human decisions—millions of them, to be sure, but anthropogenic ones all the way down. Of course, some choices—and some who choose—have more clout than others.
No Small Plans, a new graphic novel comprising three main stories set in the past, present, and future of Chicago, explores the sublime within human reach, posing a not-so-simple question: Who gets to choose what the city will become?
No Small Plans is explicitly (though not exclusively) didactic in purpose. The book was commissioned by the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) as a contemporary equivalent to the 1911 textbook Wacker’s Manual, which was meant to teach the city’s schoolchildren about architect Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. Not unlike Wacker’s Manual, which was a standard text for Chicago’s 8th graders for over three decades, No Small Plans will be given away for free to 30,000 Chicago teenagers. What exactly is it meant to teach them?
Some readers may stumble upon a central paradox: though we learn that the city is many areas rather than a single whole, we also learn that the city’s ideal image of itself is evidently the patrimony of an early benevolent, mustachioed central planner. In fairness, Daniel Burnham is not treated uncritically in the “Burnham interludes” that link the book’s primary narratives.
On the other hand, other realities of architecture and engineering are not rendered in a well-rounded way. For one thing, the commercial context of most development, as well as of the Plan itself, is either unacknowledged or considered in a mostly negative light. This seems strange, especially since so many of the architectural wonders that are lovingly sketched throughout this graphic novel were ultimately generated by the engine of 19th and 20th century American capitalism.
Moreover, although commercial development is certainly capable of producing ugliness, it generally checks the tendency towards visual monoculture that makes larger planned cities or neighborhoods so soul-shreddingly dull. Nonetheless, as the book makes plain, development is not always as just or as fair as we may wish. Chicago’s built environment reflects its very real history of cronyism, racial prejudice, and social unrest.
The artists behind No Small Plans (Gabrielle Lyon, Devin Mawdsley, Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin, and Deon Reed) capitalize on the possibilities of the medium, using the vocabulary of image to reinforce the book’s more overtly articulated themes. In the “Chicago: 1928” narrative, for example, the sepia-toned landscape is brightened by the three main characters in a simple yet powerful way:
Elisa Gallo, a feisty orphan girl from Maxwell Street, is clad in an Eloise-esque red dress. Reginald (Reggie) Williams, a Bronzeville resident and meditative paperboy for the Chicago Defender, wears yellow socks. Bernard Richter, an engineering-oriented German kid living in the Austin neighborhood, carries a blue bag. In combination, and with obvious implications, the three characters form the basis of a classical color wheel.
Later, during the “Chicago: 2017” narrative, Reggie Williams’ moral journey is thematically and visually echoed by that of David Green, a teenager from Englewood who weighs the costs and benefits of development in his own community.
The “Chicago: 2211” narrative, like the 2017 narrative, ends with a somewhat ambiguous decision. The visual reference points for 2211 Chicago range from the early 2010s internet memes to the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Freed to some extent from the obligations of near-fidelity to architectural and social history, the artists appear to have had great fun reimagining the city and its inhabitants.
I would have enjoyed drawing Octavius Bacca, a scion of the “Lakefront Neo-Elite” who looks like a genetically enhanced version of Sluggo from Nancy. At one point, Octavius is enthroned on a golden chair, in a gold-plated apartment, near the summit of a gilded skyscraper. Here as elsewhere, local trends and obsessions are unfailingly projected into the future.
Phó-, a recent fad, is still faddish nearly 200 years from now. The forces of evil are inevitably condo developers. Instead of staring at their cellphone screens, people stare at holographic screens. For the sake of symmetry and plausibility, the future narrative could have instead been set in 2106, exactly as far forward as 1928 is backward. In any case, the lessons of this final story are clear enough.
No Small Plans–ch1-pg6-7–reproduced with permission of CAF
No Small Plans succeeds as an introduction to the challenges and possibilities of planning. More than that, it encourages engagement with Chicago’s matchless architectural legacy. For the book’s planned audience of schoolchildren, it may constitute a first encounter with the Uptown Theatre, the Victory Monument, and other civic treasures. For adult readers, No Small Plans may do what a lot of effective art can do, by making an old building, street, or bridge seem new again.
Nathan Worcester, a scion of the Lakefront Neo-Elite, has written for Chicago Weekly, the Hyde Park Herald and other publications. He blogs about yoga, search engine optimization and life in its torturous glory at nathanworcester.wordpress.com.
No Small PLans–ch3-pg90–reproduced with permission of CAF.