Make Big Plans

Chicago. Michigan Avenue, Looking Towards the South. Plan of Chicago, plate CXVIII.  Chicago History Museum.

At the turn of the twentieth century, business leaders, social reformers, architects, and city planners devoted tremendous energy and imagination to improving the American metropolis. At the heart of this movement was the visionary Plan of Chicago, published in 1909 by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. Commissioned by the Commercial Club of Chicago, the publication dazzled readers with innovative remedies for urban problems, explicated through detailed maps and stunning illustrations.

Burnham’s approach to planning is best summarized in the advice often attributed to him: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves 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.”

As a major figure in the evolution of modern urban architecture, Burnham understood the American city, its problems, and its prospects largely in physical and visual terms. Much of the Plan of Chicago’s reputation rests on the rhetorical power of its beautifully executed illustrations, which collectively offer a cohesive image of a rational metropolis. The Plan’s images and “logical diagrams” are an enduring legacy that continues to inspire comprehensive city planning in metropolitan Chicago and beyond.

Yet the Plan of Chicago also had its limits. It proposed architectural and aesthetic solutions to urban problems that many believed could not be solved without more direct intervention in the social welfare of human lives. Burnham’s plan – indeed, no plan – could by itself address the myriad social, political, and economic issues created by urban change, decentralization, and sprawl.

This web resource was conceived during the 2009 Burnham Centennial celebrating the lasting influence of the Plan of Chicago. Though Make Big Plans addresses many of the challenges confronting cities and planners in the past, our particular inspiration for creating this resource was to place the extraordinary visual components of the plan within the wider stream of American visual culture. Conversely, we also explore how drawings, prints, views, maps, photographs, book illustrations, advertisements, and other genres of graphic arts influenced in turn the way American cities were both imagined and lived, both manipulated and planned.

In addition to examining the visual components of the Plan, each section of this website considers the visions of American and European cities that preceded or influenced Burnham, Bennett, and their contemporaries. And each section includes images of twentieth-century American metropolitan geography and culture that followed from, challenged, or contradicted the Plan. Much of this web resource concentrates on Chicago and its hinterland. It also ranges more widely, acknowledging that Daniel Burnham’s vision of an American metropolis was never exclusively focused exclusively on his adopted home.