The designers of the World’s Fair are enormously successful people even before they complete the exhibition — and they know it. Burnham, Olmsted, Sullivan, Root, Ferris, and their colleagues are proud and more than a little arrogant. They get involved with the Fair in order to ensure that their architectural legacies will survive long after they die. The size and scale of the buildings they design testify to their enormous ambitions.
The designers’ egocentrism takes different forms. Sullivan and Olmsted oppose the towering scale and imposing style of the World’s Fair because they find it bombastic, old-fashioned, and disruptive to the fun of the event. But this certainly doesn’t mean that Sullivan and Olmsted are more humble than their colleagues. Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City, cares deeply about his colleagues’ opinion of him; the same is true of Sullivan. Olmsted is a landscape architect, and he understands that his designs’ success hinges on their harmony with the other design. In other words, he knows that he needs to cooperate with the other ambitious architects if he is to be personally successful.
In general, Larson suggests that creative geniuses have to balance ego and cooperation if they are to succeed. The career of Daniel Burnham may be the best example of this principle. Burnham is motivated by his own selfish ambitions. Because he was rejected from Harvard and Yale as a young man, he wants to impress the Eastern American architects. But in spite of his ambitions, Burnham excels at cooperating with others. His partnership with John Root, and later, his skillful negotiations with the other architects at the World’s Fair, hinge upon his acknowledgment that he can’t do everything himself.
By and large, Larson makes fun of people who are too egocentric. Harriet Monroe, who publishes a poem commemorating the Dedication Day ceremonies at the World’s Fair and arrogantly thinks that it is a brilliant achievement, ends up burning her own work for kindling. Although ego is necessary for completing monumental tasks like the construction of the White City, it’s not enough, especially in a largely anonymous field like architecture. (After all, only a small handful of people alive today have even heard of Daniel Burnham or the 1893 World’s Fair, at least before reading The Devil in the White City.) Without cooperation to temper ego, nothing can be accomplished.
Ego and Cooperation ThemeTracker
Ego and Cooperation Quotes in The Devil in the White City
The dome was too much — not too tall to be built, simply too proud for its context. It would diminish Hunt’s building and in so doing diminish Hunt and disrupt the harmony of the other structures on the Grand Court.
At Jackson Park, aggravation was endemic. Simple matters, Burnham found, often became imbroglios. Even Olmsted had become an irritant. He was brilliant and charming, but once fixed on a thing, he was as unyielding as a slab of Joliet limestone.
If an engineer capable of besting Eiffel did not step forward soon, Burnham knew, there simply would not be enough time left to build anything worthy of the fair. Somehow [Burnham] needed to rouse the engineers of America.
Unlike the majority of the audience, Monroe believed the poem to be rather a brilliant work, so much so that she had hired a printer to produce five thousand copies for sale to the public. She sold few and attributed the debacle to America’s fading love of poetry. That winter she burned the excess copies for fuel.
The exposition was Chicago’s great pride. Thanks mainly to Daniel Burnham the city had proved it could accomplish something marvelous against obstacles that by any measure should have humbled the builders.
As Wright’s academic star rose, so too did Sullivan’s. Burnham’s fell from the sky. It became re rigueur among architecture critics and historians to argue that Burnham in his insecurity and slavish devotion to the classical yearnings of the eastern architects had indeed killed American architecture. But that view was too simplistic, as some architecture historians and critics have more recently acknowledged. The fair awakened America to beauty and as such was a necessary passage that laid the foundation for men like Frank Lloyd Wright …
The fair’s greatest impact lay in how it changed the way Americans perceived their cities and their architects. It primed the whole of America — not just a few rich architectural patrons — to think of cities in a way they never had before.