Learning from the past

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on December 16, 2010

The urbanism of Daniel Burnham

Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City, a PBS documentary produced by Judith Paine McBrien of The Archimedia Workshop, chronicles the life and milestones of this country’s most prolific designer and master urban planner. My interest in Burnham began in architectural school and was renewed last year while celebrating the centennial of the Plan of Chicago. The city was Burnham’s home for most of his life and is still home to many of his buildings—and it is where visitors and residents alike experience his grand design daily.

The presentation explores the influences that shaped Burnham’s character and career. His early life, spent living on a lake in upstate New York with his parents, who were disciples of the Swedenborgian Church, instilled in young Burnham the altruistic ideals of being of service to others. When his family moved to Chicago, the city was still young, with a growing population that was outpacing the city’s infrastructure. With a new American metropolis blooming before his eyes, Burnham developed a passion for drawing that led to his first job in the office of William Le Baron Jenney, a prolific engineer and architect. Jenney is known for being among the first designers to use iron structural framing that allowed for taller and lighter structures. It was during Burnham’s brief apprenticeship with Jenney that he wrote to his mother and father that he “will try to become the greatest architect in the city and country,” believing architecture was where he could make his contribution to mankind. The presentation goes on to convincingly demonstrate just how well Burnham fulfilled his prophecy.

Not long after the Great Fire of 1871, which reduced much of the city to charred ruins and left 100,000 people homeless, Burnham and John Root combined their design genius and business savvy to found Burnham & Root. Together, they designed some of the most famous buildings in the world, including The Rookery, the Rand McNally Building and the Masonic Building, the latter being, at the time, the tallest building in the world. The film is clear in highlighting the success of the buildings in terms of not only their physical beauty but also their inventiveness in pioneering a new genre of building to accommodate modern commerce. The Rookery functions today as it had been intended more than 100 years ago because the designers listened to their clients carefully and responded appropriately.

In 1890, Burnham and Root were selected as consulting architects for the design of the Chicago World’s Fair. Big thinking, big planning and big dreaming drove Burnham for the next two years as he lived in a dormitory on the fairgrounds, managing the design, construction and financing of the largest civic undertaking in modern history: more than 200 buildings in only 28 months. Clearly, massive civic-minded projects of our era (e.g., Boston’s Big Dig) would benefit from Burnham’s leadership acumen.

It was in designing the Fair that Burnham’s vision took him beyond the steel and stone of buildings to see the need for modern infrastructure for utilities and transportation. He realized that a modern civilization needed healthcare, open space and good schools to sustain a growing population. From that vision, he created the White City (as the Fair was nicknamed), a pioneering example of urban planning that inspired the City Beautiful movement and defined the country for decades to come.

Burnham was an architect “rock star” after the Fair, building a design portfolio of iconic architecture that includes the Flat Iron Building and Ellicott Building in New York; the McMillan Plan for Washington, D.C.; and urban plans for Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago and Manila, The Philippines. In every instance, Burnham saw an opportunity to create a new public realm that would benefit everyone, ideals he learned as a child from his parents. Only Robert Moses has had as much planning largesse since Burnham—though he was not as artistically inclined as Burnham, and far less diplomatic.

Burnham’s final project, the Filene’s Building, is a Beaux Arts gem in Boston’s architectural fabric, but it’s not discussed in the film. Although the evolution of his career from building designer to urban planner is accurately portrayed, the film could easily have delved more deeply into his major building designs. McBrien instead chose wisely to focus on his urban design work that has transformed how we experience our cities.

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