Death in the White City


The strong growth of the United States economy has been accompanied in recent years by a sharp increase in gun sales and the national homicide rate. In fact, the United States has one of the highest homicide rates of any developed country, and murder rates are spiking in many major cities nationwide, including Chicago. How can we focus on mixed-use development, on the intersection of commercial and public values, when we cannot protect our most precious resource—human life? How do we address violence? What role can architecture play in reflecting and shaping society?

Chicago’s first global statement via architecture occurred at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. The White City inspired the City Beautiful movement and demonstrated American advancements in technology, culture and standard of living, positioning the United States as a world power. However, the World’s Fair and its weapons exhibits did not anticipate the industrialization of violence.

Death in the White City seeks to achieve similarly noble goals of that world’s fair but by utilizing a deliberate, uncomfortable language tailored to exhibiting the scale of our most pressing, destructive problem. The centrally-located site rips into an OPEN WOUND, a necropolis in the heart of the metropolis, showcasing the homicide problem and its aftermath. Furrows planted with Chicago’s murder victims form the Garden of Tragedy. Chicago’s vena cava, the river, is choked down as it enters the site before releasing into Tears of the City, a dramatic reflecting pool highlighting the tension between reality (Center of Violence) and hope (Center for Community Action).

The Center of Violence, anchored to the ground by the burden of its contents, handles all aspects of death including a mausoleum, spaces for memorializing and coping, a trauma center, and a morgue. Five prisms symbolizing the five stages of grieving view out over the Garden. A digital cemetery provides permanence for victims from across the nation, winding skyward toward the Center for Community Action. The Center for Community Action, an uplifting beacon for the city, is everything the Center of Violence is not. It is tall, more celestial than earthen, and highly transparent. Located in the South Side, the Center for Action optimistically houses active responses to violence including headquarters for grassroots organizations like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, facilities to house, educate, serve and protect youth, and more.

Death in the White City would be terrible to build, a MONUMENT TO A TIME THAT SHOULD NOT EXIST. The Garden of Tragedy will be overseeded in less than a century at Chicago’s current homicide rate, but it does not have to be this way. WE DO NOT WANT IT TO BE THIS WAY. Instead, nurture life. Value life. Protect life. And let the open wound heal into a beautiful scar, a reminder of a painful past that we have since overcome. Let Chicago’s heart be filled not with a cemetery but a vibrant park, not with tears but laughter, not with shattered dreams but bright possibilities.

—Edwin Harris and Billy Askey, Lead Designers.