Although I grew up in a southwest suburb of Chicago, my family liked to spend our weekends downtown. My father used to work in the Amoco building (now Aon) on Randolph St. and Michigan Ave., overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Sometimes my mom would take my sisters and me to meet my father by his work on a Friday afternoon during the summer to enjoy the city and its summertime festivals. Chicago really comes alive during the summer. We would spend our evenings walking around the park, venturing sometimes up Michigan Ave. to Oak Street Beach to walk along the lakefront by Navy Pier and then to Burnham Harbor. If we were up for a longer hike, we would end up at Adler Planetarium, take in the skyline with the harbor, and return to Buckingham Fountain to watch it light up at night. Having traveled to many other cities across America, I always took pride in having Chicago as my downtown. It was beautiful compared to most cities, and the lakefront with the sailboats and sound of water gave me a sense of peace despite to noisy rush of Lake Shore Drive. I always wondered why Chicago had the accent of beauty more than most other cities. Beauty seemed to be an essential part of the city's plan.
I later learned that Burnham Harbor was named after the city’s architect and city planner, Daniel Burnham, who drew up an extensive plan for Chicago to make it “Paris on the Prairie”. Burnham’s Chicago Plan was an idealistic rendering of what Chicago could be if beauty played a leading role in urban planning. Only part of the plan was realized but that there was such a plan made me appreciate that the beauty I was glimpsing in the city as was not merely accidental but intended. My Uncle Michael, my mom’s older brother and my godfather, is a landscape architect. As a kid, I used to often visit his house in Oak Park (Frank Lloyd Wright’s city), and I believe I would ask him about landscape architecture — I probably never asked him, but I like to think I did. Either from him or on my own, I soon learned about the great landscape architect named Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Riverside, the city where my parents first lived in before having me and my twin sister, and many of the parks I visited throughout the city. Like many landscape architects of his day, Olmsted did not have a formal education in design but learned by way of apprenticeship and travel in Europe. Back then, education came by way of apprenticeship and travel, in my opinion, still the best ways to learn.
As many of you already know, I have been traveling throughout Poland this summer before I begin teaching history at a high school in Kraków. Yesterday, I had a short stop in Warsaw by Łazienki Park (Royal Baths). I only had less than two hours to explore the park —I saw only one-third of the park—but that was enough time to convince me that it might be one of my favorite city parks in Europe.
My walk through the park convinced me that I am dead wrong about Warsaw lacking in beauty. It is truly a beautiful city, in a unique way, blending the classical and modern in a cyberpunk vibe. The park made me appreciate architects like my uncle who realize for us their vision of beauty, giving us a glimpse of that heavenly order that uplifts the soul. I left the park in a state of serenity and peace, feeling like God had just breathed new life in me. I bet Olmstead must have breathed the same when he visited the gardens of Europe.
For all the talk about beauty in Catholic circles these days, I often wonder if beauty is even mentioned in design schools. I am no expert, so please point me to those programs that uphold beauty as the splendor of the truth and not just a matter of taste. If someone asked me as a child if Burnham Harbor and Buckingham Fountain were beautiful, I would unhesitatingly have said ‘yes’. But my education seemed to beat that spontaneous response out of me. I bet some of my teachers would have been pleased if I would have answered my younger self with the classic response of the Dude: “Yeah, well, that’s just, like uhhh, your opinion, man.” Thankfully, no one believes such a reaction. Beauty speaks for itself, and everyone recognizes it. At least that’s what I saw on the faces of those strolling through Łazienki Park.