Make No Small Plans

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Chicago_World's_Fair_-_Thomas_Moran_-_overallIt is just over 100 years now since the 1912 passing of esteemed American architect and urban planner Daniel Hudson Burnham, FAIA (September 4, 1846 – June 1, 1912). It is to Burnham that we owe the famous aphorism, “make no small plans. They haven’t the power to stir men’s souls.”

In our less vainglorious day and age, ignoring the gender bias of that era, we still appreciate the power of that message.

In 1873 at the ripe old age of 27 Mr. Burnham together with his colleague John Wellborn Root established the practice of Burnham & Root. Architects of one of the first American skyscrapers, the Masonic Temple Building in Chicago under the design influence of Root, the firm produced modern buildings as part of the Chicago School. Following Root’s premature death from pneumonia in 1891, the firm became known as D.H. Burnham & Company.

From there Burnham’s trajectory proceeded in the following manner:

“Burnham and Root had accepted responsibility to oversee design and construction of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s then-desolate Jackson Park on the south lakefront. The largest world’s fair to that date (1893), it celebrated the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage. After Root’s sudden and unexpected death, a team of distinguished American architects and landscape architects, including Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim and Louis Sullivan, radically changed Root’s modern and colorful style to a Classical Revival style. Under Burnham’s direction, the construction of the Fair overcame huge financial and logistical hurdles, including a worldwide financial panic and an extremely tight timeframe, to open on time.”

In 1893 Burnham would have been just about 47 years of age. Of the members of the project team established under him, landscape architect Frederick Olmsted at age 71 would have been well Burnham’s senior. Charles McKim (aged 46) had by then established the esteemed firm McKim, Mead, & White. Loius Sullivan, then aged 37, had just embarked on his revolutionary investigations into the possibilities of the steel high rise building.

With the hindsight of over 100 years behind us it’s relatively simple to visualize a project team including Olmstead, McKim, and Sullivan under Burnham’s leadership moving synchronistically in lockstep towards some straightforward goal, and then imagine everything else falling into place.

But the reality must have been that the goal was not so clear-cut, and the individual motivations of the project team could not have been precisely tailored so as to achieve the grand result. Instead, there must have been conflicting opinions, various motives, and diverse recommendations informing the direction of the project team formed under Burnham’s leadership.

It is reported that, “under Burnham’s direction, the construction of the Fair overcame huge financial and logistical hurdles, including a worldwide financial panic and an extremely tight timeframe, to open on time.”

Thus, the success of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s follows from Burnham’s leadership. And it is from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition that the model called American Industrial Optimism devolved.

“Huge financial hurdles”? “Worldwide financial crisis”? Sound familiar?

Daniel Burnham’s voice still resounds even after 100 years: “Make No Small Plans”. Because our current situation is only temporary. And because the leadership we provide, for each of us now just as it was for Burnham then, will be the model for those generations who will succeed us.


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