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Last edited 02 Dec 2016
Thomas Hastings suggested that “Happy is the city governed by the laws of art” (1); however the America of the 1890’s, the birthplace of the City Beautiful movement, was not governed by the laws of art. With an economic system in crisis, depression and civil upheaval, a shift in industry from agrarian means to more advanced secondary industries and corrupt governmental rule the USA was a nation of great power and wealth; but a nation living in, and scarred by, spasmodic urban growth; lacking a “conscious hand” (2) guiding urban planning.
Periods of growth often resulted in a vibrant expanding outer city surrounding an outdated, overpopulated inner core (3) criss-crossed by overhead cables and railroads. City cores resembled frontier villages more than they did the heart of an industrial powerhouse. (4)
Architects generally restricted themselves to individual buildings. As Hastings stated, “...every man is for himself, more thoughtful of making a personal impression than doing a beautiful thing.”(5) In comparison with the grandeur of European cities such as Paris and Venice, the USA was falling behind. However, urban planning in the USA had to deal with different functions than many of the cities that inspired the City Beautiful movement. For example Venice relied on traders and markets to generate capital in an enigmatically bustling yet beautiful city; whereas cities such as New York or Chicago were based on manufacturing.
The first step in “beautifying” American cities was the 1893 World Exposition, held in Chicago. This was effectively a 1:1 model of how people such as Daniel Burnham, John Root and Fredrick Law-Olmsted envisioned American architecture and urban planning. It was the first co-ordinated approach to planning in the sense that a team of architects, surveyors and landscape architects worked together to create a coherent city plan which was designed with a “conscious hand” and was to be followed ,without exception. In addition, the exposition incorporated art and sculpture on a vast scale. (7)
Some of the most important themes that came from this exposition include; the use of the Beaux-Arts architectural styling, the concept of the White City, the harmony and balance with which the exposition was designed and the concept of American Exceptionalism (8).
The City Beautiful movement was initially intended to improve the aesthetic of US cities. However by doing this with reference to the classic periods of architecture (Renascence, Classical and Greek) it quickly became more than simply “Urban Beautificaton.” Buildings were often finished in white, connected by long colonnades and surrounded by sculpture and vistas (9), inspired by French urban planning.
Baron Haussmann, responsible for the plan of Paris, designed by “seizing strategic points and opening up their approaches” (10); his method of designing urban areas was to “make no little plans.” (11)] Burnham and his colleagues realised that an effective city plan was one which detailed every area and aspect of the city. This they applied to their work, most notably in the regional plan created for Chicago in 1909 (Burnham and Bennett.) (12)
Burnham based the city around a central public area, which could be accessed along long boulevards which cut right through the city to ensure that the centre remained both visible and easily accessible even from the urban fringe. This was a theme that intrinsically linked with the City Beautiful.
At the same time, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, regarded by some to be the forefather of the City Beautiful movement, was adopting a similar approach in planning Washington D.C in 1791. Here, he made the Capitol a strategic point from which all major routes radiated; in his words “prolonging (The Capitol) on far distant points of view.” (13)
The City Beautiful manifesto strove to enforce the monumental, not through the scale or mass of a building, but rather through “Consistency, Proportion and Detail” (14) . Examples of this include the White House in Washington D.C and Grand Central Station in New York. Whilst these are not the largest buildings in the surrounding area, their detail, consistency and dominance of their site leads them to appear as more dominant than any of the surrounding buildings, creating a sense of true monumentality without excessive scale.
Cities designed within the City Beautiful movement made extensive use of white materials and finishes. Not only did this create a strikingly beautiful city, it was hoped that the ‘White City’ in all its opulence would facilitate civic and moral rectitude, ridding urban areas of crime and unrest, and enabling their gentrification.
The movement made great use of architectural detailing normally reserved for cathedrals or the upper classes of society; though seemingly purely aesthetic this had a greater moral purpose. Train Stations, Shops and Warehouses were all designed to the same level of detail, regardless whether they were to be used by the wealthiest or poorest members of society. Moreover the extensive use of art and sculpture created a vivid backdrop to the lives of all in the city. In doing this planners hoped that they would facilitate the growth of a positive democratic culture. Everything was possible for every person, regardless of wealth or cultural background (15). This was more than mere urban planning, it was a beacon of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream.
 Development of movement
For the first time in Modern American History the movement made an attempt to base the planning of settlements on artistic compositional values to attain regularity, and harmonious design throughout a city; rules which had for centuries been applied to the architecture of an individual building, but not an entire urban area.
In previous movements of urban planning nothing more than the arrangement of buildings was considered. The City Beautiful attempted to not only provide order to the layout of a city, but also order to the society inhabiting it, hoping that the order and harmony would rid the USA of the violence experienced during the Civil War and Revolution preceding the birth of this movement.
However, Louis Sullivan, a cornerstone of the Chicago school of architecture rather damningly stated that the City Beautiful movement would result in “...no American architecture for Fifty years.” (16) because of its reliance on the theory and movements of European schools of design. Advocates of the city beautiful were quick to point out that European schools, such as L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris, was one of the few in the world teaching architects to design with the then new materials of reinforced concrete and steel, and it was the education of American architects in Europe which allowed them to design many of the new buildings (Department Stores, Large Warehouses, Hotels) required by the USA in a manner appropriate to the City Beautiful movement.(17)
Whilst the movement was well suited to a revolutionised USA, it remained so for only a few decades. Too few were able to see the core values of the movement; the principle of urban composition, and an appreciation of the symbolic power of art. (18) Instead what was seen was a revival of an archaic form of European Architecture.
The movement was also effected by advancements in technology and fashion. In the words of Christopher Tunnard, “...too often technology, fashion or ignorance dictates form, the movement is thus lost.” (19)
Despite this, the movement had a long lasting impact, and it could be argued that it initiated the thoughts that lead to radical movements such as modernism, the Utopian theories developed by CIAM (Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne), along with redevelopment and renewal approaches to planning.
 Find out more
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- Architectural styles.
- Civil Engineering during the Industrial Revolution in Britain.
- Classical orders.
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- Modernist architecture.
- Nineteenth century building types.
- Smart cities.
- Smart cities design timeframe.
 External references
- (1) Christopher Tunnard, The City of Man, Architectural Press, 1953, p.303
- (2) Tunnard, p.325
- (3) Julie K. Rose, City Beautiful: The 1901 plan for Washington D.C [accessed January 2010]
- (4) Anthony Sutcliffe, Towards the Planned City, Blackwell, 1981, p.96-97
- (5) Ibid., p.303
- (6) Sutcliffe, p.96-97
- (7) Sutcliffe, p.98
- (8) Kevin Forsythe and others, World’s Columbian Exposition (February 2007 [accessed 10 January 2010]
- (9) Sutcliffe, p.98
- (10) Tunnard, p.310
- (11) Ibid., p.310
- (12) Ibid., p.311
- (13) Tunnard, p.311
- (14) Ibid., p.321
- (15) Anthony Sutcliffe, Towards the Planned City, Blackwell, 1981, p.96-97
- (16) Christopher Tunnard, The City of Man, Architectural Press, 1953, p.304
- (17) Ibid., p.325
- (18) Ibid., p.327
- (19) Ibid., p.327
- Anthony Sutcliffe, Towards the Planned City (Blackwell, 1981)
- Christopher Tunnard, The City of Man (Architectural Press, 1953)
- John W. Reps, Monumental Washington, (Prinston University Press Princeton, New Jersey, 1967)
- Julie K. Rose, City Beautiful: The 1901 plan for Washington D.C, (1996) [accessed January 2010])
- Kevin Forsythe and others, World’s Columbian Exposition (February 2007) [accessed 10 January 2010
This article was created by --Shmg 15:34, 9 December 2012 (UTC)
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