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Why Burnham?

Why Burnham?

by Rob McManamy

Today, September 4, marks the 168th birthday of our namesake, Daniel Hudson Burnham, the visionary architect, city planner and indefatigable team-builder most famous for these immortal words:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…”

But Burnham was much more than a memorable quote. Behind the words, he was a force of nature who shook off the 'slings and arrows’ and petty jealousies of his profession to build consensus and midwife ambitious dreams into concrete and steel reality. And his reach and influence extended well beyond the famed 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, for which Burnham oversaw construction. That seminal event put Chicago on the world map and helped to define America abroad as a land of infinite possibility. In just six months, more than 20 million visitors from all over the globe experienced Burnham’s glorious and fleeting ‘White City’.

One of the acclaimed fair’s most lasting legacies was the broad license and wide latitude it forever afforded Burnham to design and influence important civic works elsewhere. To those who think his reach is overstated or even just outdated, close your eyes and imagine:

  1. Manhattan without the Flatiron Building;
  2. Chicago without its wonderful, people-friendly lakefront;
  3. The District of Columbia without the National Mall.

Without Burnham, none of those beloved man-made achievements would exist today, at least not in the form we all know them. And that doesn’t even touch upon his broader influence as the father of urban planning and one of the earliest innovators in vertical office construction. His rival and later harshest critic, the brilliant Louis Sullivan, is often called the “father of the modern skyscraper”, but Burnham certainly belongs in the conversation. (At the very least, he deserved more respect and gratitude from Sullivan, whose personal decline would have caused greater public embarrassment had Burnham not quietly paid his bills at the downtown Cliff Dwellers Club.)

Such generosity was common for Burnham, whose thick skin and magnanimous nature is part of the reason that we decided on the name ‘Burnham Works’ for our enterprise here. Like Burnham, himself, we are focused on the future and thinking BIG. We see the grand achievements that this industry can (and must) accomplish if it resists the urge to pull in opposite directions. We want to help all of us—all of you—to embrace the tantalizingly limitless potential of this collaborative Golden Age of Technology in which history has now placed us. 

As expressed in his extraordinary 1909 ‘Plan of Chicago’—which Burnham started writing after doctors told him he had just three years to live—we also believe that the built environment can and should have order and purpose; that functionality and creativity can coexist and complement each other. Perhaps most visionary for a child of the Industrial Age, Burnham also saw the need for natural green space in the urban environment, a passion that may be traced back to his work at the World’s Fair with legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

In 1891, Olmsted and other contemporary stars recruited by Burnham stood on the marshy shores of Lake Michigan, where the Museum of Science & Industry still stands today. They listened to the astounding plans then on the table to build 200 buildings in 28 months. To a man, they said, “It can’t be done.”

Burnham corrected the group. “It will be built,” he said.

And it was.

At Burnham Works, we hope to bring that kind of unshakeable determination and confident enthusiasm to this industry every day. We want to push the broader conversation forward and engage all of you to help each other see beyond the next project or contract. We can’t all be Burnhams, of course, but we all make plans of one sort or another each night as we try to think ahead to the next day. Join with us now in re-firing our imaginations to make those plans—your dreams—a bit bigger than we may have first envisioned them.

With your help, together we can make the magic that stirs the blood!



Rob McManamy

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