From the 1909 Plan of Chicago
A fast three days in Chicago at the end of last week, where it was very cold, and very snowy. A bracing reminder of life on the prairie…
The reason for the visit was to continue to assist Judith McBrien, and her Archimedia Workshop, in the production of a two part PBS series on the life and work of Daniel Burnham. I had the opportunity to interview Professor Donald Miller, whose wonderful history, “Chicago: City of the Century,” was itself made into an award winning 7 part PBS series. We had a terrific 2 1/2 hour conversation, which ranged across almost 400 years of Chicago’s story, from the mid-17th century to today and beyond.
Burnham’s life and work in Chicago, culminating in the 1909 Plan of Chicago, is worth a fair amount of thought at the moment. As it increasingly dawns on architects and planners, and citizens, that American cities are obsolete, we can look at Burnham’s vivid work as a kind of Field Guide to reinventing our home places. He focused on transit and transportation, parks, city streets, affordable housing, culture, social infrastructure, sanitation, and the mental and physical well being of the populous. Sounds like the start of a good agenda for the invention of the next city.
The Chicago that Burnham grew up in and helped to shape was a city of enormous chaos. In the short space of three decades at the end of the 19th century, the city grew from a town of 300,000 to a metropolis of 1,700,000. When he arrived in Chicago in 1855, at the age of 8, Chicago was a village of 80,000, and railroads and the telegraph had just arrived. Their was no social, cultural or physical infrastructure – the place was pretty much up for grabs. Which is why so many came piling in to the city. Perilous opportunity was everywhere.
As he worked, he talked about urban patriotism, about citizenship, about the Aristotelian notion that cities are more than free-for-all markets, but are instead about obtaining the best life for all. And for Burnham, he could see that the best life possible in Chicago at the end of the 19th century was pretty grim, at best.
So while Jane Addams built settlement houses, and the Progressive Movement got started, Burnham tried to fashion a city with a real, robust and vital public realm – streets, parks, institutions – that would act as a counterbalance to the wild vortex of industry that was exploding all around him. And he made a civil architecture – buildings that were good citizens in their relations with their neighbors.
Now it’s time to see that we are again amid chaos, again living in cities that cannot sustain us, our futures, and the good life we seek. Burnham’s work, and his enormous success in shaping Chicago, and Washington, and many other places, is a critical kind of reference point as we reinvent the Next City.
Stay tuned – the film is on the way.
From the 1909 Plan of Chicago
…Chicago’s much touted focus on “green” buildings, if it is carried through, could be groundbreaking. “It has to really be done seriously; it needs to cross a threshold that will not be easy to cross in terms of environmentally sustainable construction and zero-emission buildings. It will be tough – so tough that if Chicago succeeds it will have made history.” (Columbia University sociologist Saskia Sassen, quoted in the 02.04.08 Washington Post).
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