Archive for the ‘Burnham and the next city’ Category

On September 6th, at some o’clock in the evening, it is very likely that you can view a film entitled “Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City.” Here in Rochester, our local PBS station, WXXI, will carry the film at 10:00pm. I know – it’s late. But it’s worth it.

To take a look at some clips about the film, you can check this out:


I was fortunate to spend over ten years in helping this project reach the screen – doing interviews in Chicago and New York, and being interviewed in Washington by friend, colleague, and former architecture critic for the Washington Post, Ben Forgey.

Judith McBrien and her Archimedia Workshop authored and produced this terrific film. Our goal in the work was to recover Burnham’s life and work, and to reassess his role in shaping American urbanism.

Here in Rochester, two of Burnham’s colleagues, Arnold Brunner and Frederick Law Olmsted the younger, authored “A City Plan for Rochester” in 1911. Sponsored by the Rochester Civic Improvement Committee, the plan is squarely situated in the City Beautiful Movement begun by Burnham. None of the Rochester plan was constructed – their greenways are now expressways. Sigh.

Brunner and Olmsted worked with Burnham in Washington in 1900, and were good students of his urbanism.

Take a look – I hope you enjoy the film.

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1909 Plan of Chicago

From the 1909 Plan of Chicago, a view by Jules Guerin.

I really do want to get back to exploring some issues related to urban infrastructure and the next city, but I keep getting distracted by wacky news items.

As most of you know, Chicago celebrates the centennial of the 1909 Plan of Chicago next year, and the City is planning a whole host of events, celebrations, conversations and exhibitions to mark the date, look back to a critical moment in the life of Chicago, and look forward to meeting the challenges the City faces in the future. I am worried that this will be more laudatory and celebratory than challenging, provocative or useful, but I am hopeful that some good things will happen.

But less hopeful today than yesterday. This morning I learned that a cabal of Chicagons – many of them friends! – have decided to invite starchitects Zaha Hadid (London) and Ben van Berkel (Amsterdam) to design temporary pavilions in Millennium Park for the celebration. 

                 Zaha Hadid\'s subway station in Innsbruck   Mercedes Museum by UNStudio

Zaha Hadid’s Innsbruck subway station;  Ben van Berkel’s (UNStudio) Mercedes Museum

Now mind you, I’m not cranky that they did not invite Chicagoans, though I do recall much text in the 1909 Plan that talked about urban patriotism, which should have at least given them pause. But so be it. It’s a grand celebration.

What bothers me is the fear that making a statement may well be more important to these Chicagoans than what gets said.  They go and hire the flashiest celebrities they can find – will they get style or substance in return? In this age when personal expression seems to valued above any kind of civility, this could be dangerous stuff.

I hope Chicago gets more for its money than the architectural equivalent of loud blabbering on some jerk’s cell phone: a lot of noise, and who cares, anyway?

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The crew, with cinematographer Jim Morrisette at the camera and producer/director Judith McBrien in the green coat. Sculpture of Columbus by Lorado Taft. 

Filming continued today, first at Burnham’s Union Station, and then on the West Front of the Capitol, looking into the afternoon sun at Burnham’s (and L’Enfant’s) Mall.

We were led through the Capitol (!) by a member of the House Sergeant at Arms office. Today was the swearing in of new members, and as I waited for Judith and the crew, I watched hundreds of House members file in for the ceremony. One arrived by SmartCar, as you will see in the photos I have posted on Flickr.  

The Mall really was magnificent on this early spring evening. What a terrific two days – I hope the images they made capture the energy and spirit I have been privileged to witness.


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The Commission of Fine Arts, at the National Building Museum 

For some good long time now, I have been helping friend, TV producer and director, and Chicagoan Judith McBrien put together a two part/one hour each PBS series on the life and work of Daniel Burnham. I have conducted a number of interviews for Judith, noted here on the blog, and today was my turn to be interviewed, in the conference room of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The Commission was established in 1910 to implement the 1902 McMillan Commission Plan, authored by Burnham and his colleagues Charles McKim, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and Augustus St. Gaudens, and ably assisted by Burnham’s eventual biographer, Charles Moore. The Commission today is housed in the National Building Museum, so it was old home week for me.

Judith enlisted another friend, former Washington Post architecture critic Ben Forgey, to interview me, and we had a great time this afternoon talking about Burnham and Washington, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Chicago, Burnham’s many colleagues, the 1893 World’s Fair (my favorite ’93 Fair statistic: population of US in 1893 – 65 million; attendance at ’93 Fair – 27 million), and the Next City and learning from Burnham.

Judith is hoping to see this two part series included in PBS’s program called The American Experience, sometime in 2009. Tomorrow I get to join her, and the Congressional Sergeant at Arms, on the west terrace of the Capitol, to shoot the Mall that Burnham helped to create. I can hardly wait!

Stay tuned.


Ben, at left, and drawings of Burnham’s DC plan on the wall.

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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.”

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A Chicago Visit


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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