Saturday, October 31st, 2009
Lewis Mumford’s The City in History is one of the all time great books on cities. Published in 1961, it is contemporary with Jane Jacob’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Both of these are landmark works, and are also rhetorically magnificent. It makes me think back to the early 1600’s when the formative works of English literature, Shakespeare and the King James Bible, were created about the same time. (Another parallel: getting through The City in History is not unlike reading the complete works of Shakespeare or the entire King James Version – it ain’t short).
Mumford devotes a bit of prose to the Burnham plan, which he views as an extension of Baroque planning, something I’m sure Burnham would not disagree with. Here is the passage:
Right on into the twentieth century urban planning itself, at least in the great metropolises, meant chiefly baroque planning: from Tokyo to New Dehli to San Francisco. The most grandiose of these projects was Burnham’s and Bennett’s plan for Chicago, with its parks and its parkways, its diagonal avenues, its elimination of industry and railroads from the riverfront. But here as elsewhere one must note the typically baroque failing: no concern for the neighborhood as an integral unit, no regard for family housing, no sufficient conception of the ordering of business and industry themselves as a necessary part of any larger achievement of urban order. In the same fashion, the San Francisco civic center was conceived, like those at Cleveland and Springfield, without any further control over the townscape that enveloped it – and that openly defied its esthetic pretensions.
Some of the best and worst examples of baroque planning did not come forth until they had ceased, flagrantly, to be either symbolically or practically appropriate to the age that had constructed them. Without princely powers, stringent control of the surrounding area, heavy capital investments, baroque plans could not cope with the disorderly competitive enterprises of the expanding and towering city. For in baroque schemes half a loaf is actually worse than none: what remains undone or unaffected by the plan is itself a confession of its weakness.
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