Spokane Masonic Temple

When It Comes to Creating Cities, Planners Are Better Than Architects

City planning is a field far-flung from architecture. It is mystifying to think that architects are more qualified to plan cities than, say, geographers, sociologists, or even civil engineers. Architecture is a peculiar field because it represents the marriage between empirical and subjective studies. If a building functions perfectly yet looks atrocious, has the architect failed or succeeded? Perhaps, because geographers, sociologists, and civil engineers do not get the luxury of subjective analysis per se, the architect can stake rightful claim as city planner. If we look closer, however, it is revealed the architect resides over an illusionary fiefdom. The product of historical inertia and coincidence, architects took the budding field of urban planning and pasted it as a branch on their own academic tree.

In large part, urban planners can thank the City Beautiful Movement for allowing their field to migrate into ill-equipped hands. The City Beautiful Movement, driven by business and bourgeois elitists pulling the strings, tended to disregard the working class and narrowly focused on the superficial notion of architecture – via Roman and Greek neoclassical – as the one-stop cure-all to the ills of urban living. The following paragraphs will address these criticisms and, in doing so, will indirectly examine what it is that architects bring to the urban planning table.

There are brief moments in history that will forever be cited as revolutionary. Columbus’s accidental landing on a small Caribbean island, the first Continental Congress, man walking on the moon, and, as it pertains to the subject at hand, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was there, on the streets of Chicago overlooking Lake Michigan, that the world was re-introduced to classical Greek and Roman architecture. The White City it was dubbed, and its Mayor was Daniel Burnham. The patron saint of the City Beautiful Movement, Burnham designed cities and buildings within them from San Francisco to New York. His magna carta, however, was implemented in the same city that brought him fame: Chicago. It was here that the City Beautiful Movement came into fruition with Burnham’s Chicago Plan of 1909.

The Chicago Plan represents the goals of City Beautiful. The plan was to rigidify “…the chaotic city that had arisen through too-rapid growth and too-rich mixture of nationalities, would be given order by cutting new thoroughfares, removing slums, and extending parks.”[1] The City Beautiful Movement’s main objectives are seen as “…a concerted effort to bring focus and unity where chaos, visual squalor, or monotony has reigned.”[2] To achieve these goals, the prescription called for a very architectural theme of aesthetics.

The turn of the century was to be “ushered in with a blaze of neoclassical glory”[3] unheard of since Europe crawled out of the Middle Ages. The City Beautiful Movement would cure the ills of urban life simply by making cities look better. The logic of the movement clearly stems from architectural principles – make buildings look beautiful. It would be difficult to argue that the structures that were conceived and built in the era were not spectacular pieces of work that do deserve much praise. But, predicate the design plan of a city on aesthetics alone? That is akin to blasphemy and it comes as no surprise that the heretics who pushed this prescription were architects. Perhaps this is why Jane Jacobs calls the City Beautiful Movement an “architectural design cult.”[4]

The goals of City Beautiful were not misplaced, they were mis-prioritized. It is easy to see why the movement garnered support. The simple directive of making buildings look nice, predicated on the tried and true model of classical architecture, was a sure thing. The poor and working classes were brushed aside in the name of civic pride while the middle class elite reaped the benefits. As seen in Burnham’s 1909 Chicago plan, the business community backed City Beautiful because, illustrated by Haussmann’s Paris, “City Beautiful proved a good investment.”[5]

The narrow focus of City Beautiful works out well for architects; the problem is, however, cities are a dynamic far larger than pleasing geometries. The latter day saints of city planning, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Platter-Zyberk, criticize City Beautiful in this respect, “The successes of turn of the century planning, represented in America by the City Beautiful Movement, became the foundation of a new profession, and ever since, planners have repeatedly attempted to relive that moment of glory…”[6] The City Beautiful Movement was the planners’ “moment of glory” simply because the business class elite saw this form of planning as a sound investment, rather than government bureaucracy. Today, planners are more likely to be scorned as communists. The narrow focus of City Beautiful – to yield a prosperous business climate – is in stark contrast to what contemporary planners face in day-to-day practice.

Ironically, the City Beautiful Movement’s greatest downfall is at the same time its only endowment. In today’s urban environment critics abound. Developers are notorious for placing profit above community design and, therefore, well-being. Retail powerhouses like Wal Mart feed off of the current suburban development status quo. Strip development fosters a culture of drive-by architecture with little community aesthetic characteristics other than it looks like every place. As a result, many middle class urbanites suffer from what Douglas Coupland calls “terminal wanderlust – unable to feel rooted in any one environment, they [the middle class] move continually in the hopes of finding an idealized sense of community in the next location.”[7] The City Beautiful’s narrow focus accomplished some of the most lasting architectural monuments America may ever see, and, consequently, should be preserved for future generations.

The featured image at the top of this post is a shining example of City Beautiful at work in Spokane. Spokane, like many Western and Midwest cities like it, suffered from a “collective inferiority complex”[8] in which the remedy was City Beautiful. It should be noted that at the exposition the White City was introduced, Fredrick Jackson Turner declared the Western frontier closed. So, at the same time Turner closed one era, Burnham introduced a new more civil one. The remnants of which sit along side gourmet coffee shops and microbreweries from Chicago to Seattle; as a result, Burnham’s legacy was a vital part of the West’s maturation process.

The City Beautiful Movement created memorable architecture and city-scapes. It is clear, though, that it was the product of architects, not planners.  The results are hardly surprising. Is it any wonder that Burnham (the architect) is the patron saint of an urban design movement based solely on architecture? As planners, we should not be disappointed with the City Beautiful Movement; rather, we need to recognize it as a large scale manifestation of architecture. Simply, the City Beautiful is an example of why architects should stick to architecture and let planners – people who are trained to stimulate the function of cities – deal with the design of them.




Works Cited

[1] Hall, Peter. Cities of Tomorrow. p193. Blackwell Publishing. Malden, MA. 2002.

[2] Kunstler, James Howard. The City in Mind. p67. The Free Press. New York, NY 2001

[3] Ibid. p67

[4] Rybczinski, Witold. City Life. p140. Scribner. New York, NY. 1995  pg140

[5] Hall, Peter. Cities of Tomorrow. p189. Blackwell Publishing. Malden, MA. 2002.

[6] Duany, Andres. Plater-Zyberk, Elizibeth. Speck, Jeff. Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American dream. p10. North Point Press. New York, 2000.

[7] Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. p171. St. Martin’s  Press. New York, NY. 1991.

[8] Hall, Peter. Cities of Tomorrow. p189. Blackwell Publishing. Malden, MA. 2002.