The imagined city: Burnham's Vision

Urbanist Article

In 1904, a group of influential civic leaders calling themselves the Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco hired Daniel Burnham to write a new plan for our city. Burnham was by then famous around the world as a member of the design team of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago (which more than one-third of the entire population of the United States visited) and the 1901 plan for Washington, D.C., which re-established L’Enfants’ 1791 vision of the National Mall more or less as we know it today.

Burnham had emerged out of a successful architectural practice in Chicago to be the leading proponent of the City Beautiful movement. This was one of the branches of the broader Progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century, which advocated for the adoption of European (especially French) urban design practices for American cities: straight streets, symmetrical buildings, and harmonious building facades framing public sculpture or monuments. City Beautiful was in part a reaction against the evils of the 19th century city, emphasizing beauty and a luxurious public realm as opposed to a city that merely served the needs of industry. But to people not steeped within its assumptions, its emphasis on literal copies of formal French gardens and axial streets, along with rond points (roundabouts at the convergence of streets), appears looks more like the arbitrary imposition of an argyle pattern rather than a city plan that reflects an understanding of the places in which he worked.

Burnham camped out in a bungalow (designed by San Francisco architect Willis Polk) on Twin Peaks, worked for nearly a year, and in September of 1905 delivered his Report on a Plan for San Francisco to his sponsors. It was delivered to the Board of Supervisors, according to legend, on April 17 ¾ just a day before much of the city burned down in the great earthquake and fire of 1906, providing the astounding opportunity to actually implement the report.

Burnham’s plan mapped out a series of parks, both large and small. Isabel Wade celebrates his call for parkland in her essay in this issue. These parks ranged from magnificent open spaces inspired by the Greek acropolis on the city’s hilltops to a dozen new playgrounds. Burnham’s renderings also depict symmetrical masonry buildings with a consistent cornice height. But it is clear he didn’t literally intend to tear down all the other buildings merely to put up his preferred brand of architecture. The real intent of his plan was to create diagonal boulevards across the city, which would serve both a communications function and as places for strolling in the Parisian tradition:


A city plan must ever deal mainly with the direction and width of its streets. The streets of San Francisco are laid out at right angles and with little regard for grades and other physical difficulties. It may be impossible to overcome all the embarrassments arising from this condition, but certainly we can lessen them materially.


Burnham specifically called for a boulevard to ring the city, a clear precedent for the Embarcadero roadway we now have:


The difficulty may largely be conquered by girdling the city with a boulevard — a method of facilitating communication which is by no means new. To this embracing highway all streets lead, and access may be had from any one of them to another lying in a distant section by going out to this engirdling boulevard and following it until the street sought opens into it. This method of communication, enabling one to avoid the congested districts, is a delightful one, although not so direct and useful as the diagonal streets within the city, which will be particularly described hereafter.


All this was presented to San Francisco with the terribly uncanny timing. But still San Francisco did not implement it, and this story has served as homily about the enduring strength of property boundaries and the weakness of governmental power over land use ever since. Following a disaster of that magnitude, no one wanted to spend years fighting about property seizure, re-routing of roads or anything else that would delay rebuilding or re-establishment of payment of property taxes the city so desperately needed. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, the same thing happened: Christopher Wren’s attempt to impose “baroque order” on the medieval city was rejected in favor of rushing to construction based on the existing street and lotting pattern. The same thing is happening in New Orleans right now, where even proposals to not rebuild on low-lying land where residents face the prospect of death and property destruction cannot find political support.

This seems to be the pattern almost everywhere. While building codes that regulate construction methods are often changed following disasters (in fact, the San Francisco Housing Association, SPUR’s predecessor organization, was created to push for building code reforms following the 1906 earthquake), property boundaries (and changes to the public realm that would affect property boundaries) are not.

Burnham's illustration of his suggestion for the extension of the Panhandle shows two of the most recognizable features of his plan for San Francisco: axial streets crossing the city's existing grid, and rond points – including one at Market Street.

The symmetry of broad, straight streets cutting through the city has always required power. The ultimate source of this design tradition is probably Versailles (master plan, 1661) itself, although precedents go back to the plan of Pope Sixtus V for organizing Rome into a city of monuments in the 1580s. The most important precedent for Burnham and the City Beautiful movement was the Paris of Napoleon and his chief administrator Baron Georges-Eugène Haussman. Hired in 1853 to “modernize” Paris, Haussman created parks, sewers, new housing, new neighborhoods and the wide streets — and in the process, tore down something close to half of the preexisting city.

This kind of imposition of a plan onto a preexisting urban fabric cannot happen without a degree of control over private property rights that borders on absolutism. It is for this reason that many planners and historians have regarded the City Beautiful movement as authoritarian or even fascistic.

The University of California, Berkeley’s eminent historian of urbanism, Spiro Kostoff, said it this way:


The presumption of absolute power explains the appeal of the Grand Manner for the totalitarian regimes of the Thirties — for the likes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. There is also no mystery in its popularity on the colonial scene, where it functioned as an appropriate instrument of imperialism.1


The great U.S. exception, the city that most conforms to these ideals, is Washington, D.C.

The one part of San Francisco that was actually built to an approximation of this design ideal is of course the Civic Center. The symmetrical masonry buildings and consistent cornice line framing a (slightly too big) formal public space, with an axial corridor leading from Market Street to City Hall, exist as a tangible fragment of the city Burnham imagined for us.

The only time planners in the United States got this degree of power over private land was under urban renewal. The architectural fashion of that era was the modernism of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, rather than Beaux Arts classicism, and the objective was revitalization of the urban core rather than civic beautification. But the willingness to override the older, already existing city and obliterate what was already there was the same.

To me, this makes it a good thing, on the whole, that Burnham’s plan wasn’t more fully realized. Cities exist as layers, in which each generation adds according to its own ideals about what makes a good place and in response to that era’s pressures on the city. We see these ideals translated into built forms as we walk around any city that has lived as a vital place over a period of decades or centuries. What we don’t want is to give any one generation the power of mass erasure over what came before. Perhaps if we have learned anything, after all these years, about how to balance the perennial tension between preserving the past and welcoming the future, it is this: The appropriate increment for additions to the city is the individual building ¾ not, for the most part, an entire district all at one time. We should, with many important exceptions and caveats, be welcoming of new buildings but skeptical of large-scale tear-down-and-replace projects.

The American city responds to physical change in a different way than its European counterparts. We have almost never had a consensus about what buildings should look like. We allow each property owner to build on his or her own time line. We regulate building use, but not, for the most part, style. Buildings in America are not harmonious with their neighbors; they are eclectically varied. Within this context, Burnham’s plan is even more astonishing in its sheer difference from what the prevailing urban tradition.

Lewis Mumford describes the first moment of “baroque urbanism” at the beginning of the Renaissance, after “the disorder and clutter that often characterized the late medieval city had become intolerable,” as successful precisely because it had not yet become too extensive, because it added:


Patches of renascence order, openings and clarifications, that … beautifully modify the structure of the medieval city. If the new buildings, with their impersonal gravity and decorous regularity break up the harmony of the medieval pattern, they established a contrapuntal relationship which brings out, by contrast, otherwise unregarded, often invisible, esthetic qualities in older streets and buildings. …


As soon as baroque order became widespread, uniform, and absolute, when neither contrast nor evasion was possible, its weaknesses lay revealed. Clarification gave place to regimentation, openness to emptiness, greatness to grandiosity. 2

Perhaps we could say the same thing about City Beautiful as about Modernism. It is wonderful to see examples of those movements actually standing in our city — it is one of the most authentic experiences of history available to human beings — but when too much of a city is given over to one era’s ideas about good urbanism, something is lost. Real cities grow in layers, incrementally. The little taste of City Beautiful that we get in the Civic Center may be just the right amount.

Burnham understood that his plan would not all be implemented, even in a best-case scenario: “It is not to be supposed that all the work indicated can or ought to be carried out at once, or even in the near future. A plan beautiful and comprehensive enough for San Francisco can only be executed by degrees, as the growth of the community demands and as its financial ability allows.”

Some of it was, in fact, built ¾ eventually. Not just the Civic Center, but the system of parks on the hilltops, boulevards on the Embarcadero and Octavia Street, subways underneath Market Street, and maybe someday soon, a new “Union Station” in the form of the Transbay Terminal. But what the Burnham Plan challenges us to think about, more than any of its specific design proposals, is the idea of being visionary in a city such as San Francisco. This is what Chris Carlsson, Marshall Foster and Jeannene Przyblyski really focus on in this publication. If Burnham was insensitive to the specifics of what already existed, today’s generation may be faulted for its unwillingness to entertain change at all ¾ its timidity about imagining a city that is better than the one we inherited. Burnham calls us to be willing to think freshly and bravely about what our generation’s contributions to the evolving city will be.

Daniel Burnham's "Plan for San Francisco"

Gabriel Metcalf is executive director of SPUR.