If Daniel Burnham was the father of the City Beautiful, the Plan of Chicago was the favorite child of the movement and the most thorough expression of its ideals. The movement responded to wide perceptions that by the turn of the twentieth century, the major cities of the United States had grown not only large and prosperous, but ugly. The built environment of Chicago and other cities was disorderly, dirty, and congested. The unkempt appearance of American cities resulted chiefly from their rapid and unplanned expansion. Between 1860 and 1910, the nation’s population grew from 31.4 million to 91.9 million, and the number of cities with over one hundred thousand citizens increased from nine to fifty. The consequences of un-fettered growth were nowhere more evident than in Chicago. In the years following the Great Fire of 1871, real estate developers rebuilt the city at a frantic pace. The process brought elegant new skyscrapers to the downtown, but the cityscape looked random and chaotic because the rebuilding lacked coordination. As developers erected new buildings on their properties, they paid little attention to what else was on the block or across the street.

Seeking a remedy for this situation, Burnham turned to the great cities of Europe for inspiration. In planning the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Burnham and his colleagues had drawn upon the designs of ancient Greek and Roman cities, as well as Renaissance, Baroque, and Beaux-Arts models. These planning traditions emphasized monumental architectural ensembles composed of buildings of unified (but not uniform) design; formal, axial layouts and clearly defined processions within and between individual buildings; and purposefully-sited open spaces. The appearance of the 1893 fair had garnered enthusiastic praise from architectural critics and other observers, introducing many Americans to the grand European traditions of design. The success of the fair prompted Burnham to think about how to adapt these principles to improve American cities. He articulated his ideas in the Plan of Chicago. Chapter II of the book surveys the planning traditions that inspired the 1909 Plan. Emulating great European cities had a double payoff for Burnham: American cities would not only become more beautiful and functional, but would be regarded internationally as on par with the Old World capitals. For Burnham, this was more important than the development of a distinctively American architecture, a concept championed by his fellow Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright.

 

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