Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Borg, Borg, Borg! Swedenborgian Revelation and Dan Burnham

If you read the 1909 Plan of Chicago, you can find no shortage of precedents - from L'Enfant to Haussmann and more - that influenced the thought of its primary author, the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. But what were the influences that shaped his world view?

The pungent aura of unveiled truth will fill the Art Institute's Fullerton Hall this Thursday, March 12th, beginning at 6:00 p.m., as noted scholar and Burnham groupie Kristen Schaffer speaks on the topic of Finding Burnham in the Archives: Swedenborgian Revelations and the Plan of Chicago.

Like Daniel Burnham, Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) made no little plans, and like Burnham, he was no Miesian. Here are just some of the fields he studied and mastered: physics, astronomy, watchmaking, bookbinding, cabinet work, engraving, brass instrument construction, cosmology, mathematics, anatomy, physiology, politics, economics, metallurgy, mineralogy, geology, mining engineering, chemistry, the Bible, and the human soul.

According to scholar S. Synnestevedt, Swedenborg "ejected the Newtonian concept of permanent, irreducible particles of matter and suggested that everything material was essentially motion arranged in geometric forms."

In late middle age, Swedenborg was dining at a favorite inn when an apparition appeared commanding him not to eat too much. That night, the apparition appeared again, in a dream, and revealed himself as the Lord God, who commanded Swedenborg to reveal the spiritual meaning of the Bible. The result was the Arcana Coelestia, and a series of other writings - 50 massive volumes in all - that would eventually led to accusations of him being a heretic.

Biographer James John Garth Wilkinson explained Swedenborg's doctrine of "Universal Correspondence" as arguing "that bodies are the generation and expression of the souls, and that the frame of the natural world works, moves and rests obediently to the living spiritual world," making "all things into signs as well as powers . . . the smallest things, as well as the greatest, are omens, instructions, warnings, or hopes."

The largest city finds expression in the smallest, the smallest contains elements of infinity. Things are both themselves, and symbols of larger powers. Sounds kind of like a city, no?

Swedenborg influenced and was admired by American transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and over the centuries a divergent range of other adherents from Baudelaire to Balzac, Helen Keller to Jorge Luis Borges. You know, that whole crowd.

Daniel Burnham was the grandson of a Swedenborgian minster. His parents were 'Borgs, and Burnham, himself attended Swedenborgian schools as a kid. Another scholar, Irving D. Fisher, has noted:
To understand the iconography of the Plan of Chicago one must consider the religious doctrines of Swedenborg and Burnham's adherence to Swedenborg's religious tenets. In his Chicago Plan Burnham prominently employed two doctrines in Swedenborg's system: the doctrine of series and degrees and the doctrine of correspondences. Swedenborg carried over both doctrines from his intensive scientific studies to his later visionary phase.
Others have seen the "White City" created by Burnham for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition as "Swedenborg's heavenly city in stone, steel and concrete."

Once you start reading about Swedenborg, you get swallowed up in the man's massive talents and accomplishments, and often strange life. Did I mention he spent much of his life inspecting his family's mine, that he was a noted metallurgist, one of the first people to understand how the brain and cerebral cortex worked, and anticipated much of modern physics.? That he was a clairvoyant to European royalty? That he collected bottle caps?

You get caught up in this stuff and your head begins to spin. How Prof. Schaffer is going to boil it down to a 90-minute session is I have no idea, but it should be fun to see her try.

The event is free, and is co-sponsored by Chicago's Swedenborg Library, which is located in the Chicago Temple Building Again, it takes place this Thursday, March 12th, 6:00, Fullerton Hall at the Art Institute. Takes notes. There'll be a quiz.

And don't eat too much.


Anonymous said...

Your post is so timely. I just got Thomas Hines' book "Burnham of Chicago." It's a reprint of the 1974 original.

Here's the first sentence of chapter one, "Daniel Burnham was conscious all his life of the effects on his make-up of two ancestral influences: his Anglo-American antecedents and his family's Swedenborgian religion." I'd never heard of the Swedenborgs, and Hines goes on to give a little background on Swedenborg and the religion he founded.

I've owned Ms. Schaffer's book (the cover image you feature in the post) for a few years. I'd love to come and hear her speak, but LA is a bit to far of a drive for a visit to the Art Institute Thursday evening.

Anonymous said...

Are they serving Kool-Aid?

Anonymous said...

Chicago has a monument to Swedenborg in Lincoln Park. But part of it was stolen in 1976. See http://newchurchhistory.org/funfacts/?p=62

Anonymous said...

Which would make a better architect, a Swendenborg or a Swendendroid?

My money is on the Swedenborg, since it would have some biologic material combined with its robotic elements.