THE IMAGE OF BEAUTY: 1909 BURNHAM PLAN OF CHICAGO

22 May 2018

Chicago, A City on the Make

Following the success of participating in the design of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Daniel Burnham worked on city plans for Washington D.C., Cleveland, San Francisco as well as in major cities in the Philippines. Given the impact and visibility of Burnham’s work, a group of prominent Chicago businessmen who recognized the need for the city to modernize in order to compete with the development of metropolitan areas around the world commissioned Burnham to design a new city plan for Chicago. In 1909 he published the Plan of Chicago co-authored by Edward H. Bennett.

Portrait of Daniel Burnham, circa 1909
Portrait of Daniel Burnham, circa 1909

Though Chicago may not have yet become a modern city, it was facing issues of modernization and urbanization. Burnham wanted to address those issues, including the absence of recreational facilities, a haphazard lakefront and congested gridlocked streets. His Plan proposed six major changes: 1) converting the lakefront into a recreation ground via harbors, piers, parks and lagoons; 2) a new system of highways that would connect multiple points of the city; 3) improving railway terminals to be more efficient for people and freight shipments; 4) an extensive park system not just limited to the lakefront; 5) developing three classes of streets including local streets, avenues and boulevards and… 6) designating the center of the city as the heart and intellectual center of Chicago while designing all other areas of the city around it.

Visual Image, Beauty and Education

The beautifully illustrated inside cover of the 1909 Plan of Chicago
Beautifully illustrated inside cover of the 1909 Plan of Chicago

In his presentation of the Plan, Burnham predicted the importance of visual imagery and even conceived of the printed version as a picture book in which color perspectival renderings would help popularize the plan. Indeed, the physical printed book and its beautifully illustrated renderings by Jules Guérin and Ferdinand Janin set new standards for the emerging field of graphic design. More than visually appealing, the Plan of Chicago became an important tool for educating citizens, later adapted and simplified into the Wacker’s Manual, distributed to all eighth grade students at the time.  

Beauty Prevails

However, adopting the Plan of Chicago was not without its obstacles. Critics described the Plan as so grandiose and so visionary, it was appallingly expensive. Construction reached stasis with the advent of World War I and the Great Depression to follow. Though Burnham preferred a circular city layout with a clearly designated center similar to that of Paris, the original grid structure of Chicago remained.

Aerial view of Chicago, illustrated by Jules Guérin
Aerial view of Chicago, illustrated by Jules Guérin

The most important changes adopted from Burnham’s Plan came from preserving breathing room through parks that were created along Chicago’s lakefront and constructed throughout the city’s various neighborhoods. Other improvements include widening some of the biggest boulevards and rebuilding the city’s sewage system.

 

Burnham died shortly after publishing his tour de force, in 1912, without witnessing the further changes that reflected his monumental ideas, including the building of Buckingham Fountain, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Planetarium, the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower. The impact of his propositions were felt in other less concrete — but no less significant — ways through the public demonstration of the impact of urban planning and legitimizing the profession of city planning throughout the U.S. Burnham predicted and championed the importance of freight traffic, rapid transit, railroads, shipping and other industrial needs as part of the fabric of modern cities like Chicago. Throughout his career, he promoted ideals of the city as grand, beautiful and lovely while proving that the city is not an isolated geographic unit but a social, economic and cultural entity, part of a larger whole.

1000M takes it place among Chicago's skyline
1000M takes it place among Chicago’s skyline

Fast forward to today and 1000M is proud to embedded in the historical fabric of Chicago while honoring the architects and thinkers that came before.