Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Daniel Burnham and the Noble Diagram

"Make no little plans." For more than a hundred years these have been the famous last words of dreamers, gamblers, hucksters, hustlers, and speculators all doubling down on the long shot. Despite a prolific career as an architect and planner, this cliché may be Daniel Burnham’s most indelible contribution to the culture. Posthumously (and dubiously) attributed to Burnham, this has been the prevailing wisdom of every great American ambition from the Manhattan Project, to the moon shot, and now it is the title of a new film about Burnham to be shown this Wednesday, June 9 at 8:30 p.m. on what is arguably his second greatest achievement, the National Mall.

Here in Washington, Burnham is known as the architect of Union Station and (along with architect Charles McKim and landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr.) the author of the 1901 McMillan Plan which shaped the National Mall and the federal precinct as we know it today. But Burnham also designed some of the nation’s great Beaux-Arts public buildings and a skyline’s worth of the early 20th-Century skyscrapers. He was planner of the World’s Columbian Exposition — one of the first World’s Fairs — and later drafted plans for several of the nation’s great cities. And he was also one of founders of the City Beautiful Movement.

A little more than a century before the McMillan plan, Major Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant also made no little plans. After a successful career as a military engineer under George Washington, L’Enfant started an engineering practice in New York. But like so many since who have come to Washington with big plans, the volatile combination of politics and hubris, would be his undoing. L’Enfant, commissioned in 1791 to find a site for the capitol, imagined himself to be the planner of the city--laying out the city’s streets--and even the architect of the federal buildings. After alienating local land owners and Thomas Jefferson (a proponent of a much smaller, decentralized republican government) L’Enfant was dismissed and disgraced, and spent the rest of his life trying to collect payment for his efforts and finally died in poverty.

The rest of Burnham’s platitude is rarely quoted, but explains much about L’Enfant’s contribution to Washington, and his own:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Among L’Enfant’s innovations was a grand avenue from the Capitol, west to what would become the site of the Washington Monument, a gesture that was never fully realized until Burnham began work in 1901 on what we now know as the National Mall. The McMillan plan filled in a fetid canal that bisected the Mall and removed a train station and countless other utilitarian distractions to create the ceremonial forecourt to American power. L’Enfant never imagined a colossal pedestrian mall, but L’Enfant’s “noble, logical diagram” never died and indeed found new life in Burnham's Mall.

While few of Burnham’s plans were ever substantially realized, the McMillan plan for Washington D. C. was one of his greatest achievements and one of the purest expressions of the principles of the City Beautiful Movement. Like many of the progressive social reform movements of the early 20th century, the City Beautiful Movement sought to alleviate the problems of 19th century urban life, by ennobling the city. In Washington and Chicago, Detroit and Denver and at a smaller scale in cities across the country and around the world, the City Beautiful Movement is responsible for a wave of Beaux-Arts architecture, landscape architecture and urban planning that undoubtedly ennobled our cities by creating order and beauty, but did little more than displace the squalor and despair, kicking the problem a generation down the road to urban renewal.

DCMud will host a webchat with film's director today at noon.

Washington DC real estate and architecture news


Thayer-D on Jun 8, 2010, 9:14:00 AM said...

Not to take away what is undouptably one of America's iconic cultural figures, he really wasn't an artist. His early career was feuled by the artistry of John Wellborn Root. Once Burnham and ROot won the prize to execute the World's Fair, Root unexpectidly died, so he hired a cadre of architects, his own being the drug addled Atwood. Olmstead actualy "planned" the exepition while he mamaged it beautifully. He contributed a lot to our country, but he hired designers to execute his work.

Unknown on Jun 8, 2010, 10:13:00 AM said...

will this film be available on dvd??

Ken on Jun 8, 2010, 11:10:00 AM said...

Yes, you can order it on the Archimedia website.

Anonymous said...

I wish that we could go back to the wild Mall of the late 1800's: trees everywhere to provide shade and relief from the heat.

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