You may have seen a question posed by my brother, Doug. He asked me what Burnham and Bennett might tell us today about our cities. Good question. Let’s explore the issues a bit. I can’t say that Burnham and Bennett would see the mess our cities are in. I hope they would. But if we think of them as city thinkers and makers, and wonder what the city thinkers and makers of the present might tell us, it might go like this:
They would tell us that the city of cars and sprawl and shopping strips, the energy gobbling, polution spewing city tied to other cities by a distribution network of trucking, the city with office zones and suburban zones and shopping zones not all mixed together, they would be tell us that that city is obsolete. Completely obsolete.
They would tell us to make cities that cared for our common well being in the best possible ways, to balance private and pubic interests, to create meaningful and significant public realms, with great parks, and great thoroughfares, and monuments and memorials that celebrate our best successes. They would tell us to make dense, walkable, mixed use cities. They would tell us to take care of our neighbors as best we can, and they would tell us to do all of this without compromising the futures of our children, and their children.
They would tell us to make a civil architecture, and to avoid egotistical buildings that fail to respect what we have worked so hard to make in our cities. They might quote Alain de Botton, from his book “The Architecture of Happiness,” where he says: “To call a work of architecture or design beautiful is to recognize it as a rendition of values critical to our flourishing, a transubstantiation of our individual ideals in a material medium.”
They would say that very very soon, we will not have the clean energy, water, or air that we need to sustain our home places. They would tell us that we must move at a breakneck pace to change our cities, and they would know that even if we started immediately, we would fail. They would see that what lies ahead is going to be very difficult. They would tell us that the way we live in our cities is going to be very different, very soon. They would say: “Let’s begin.”