After Burnham: A Classical Plan for Chicago

Chicago 2109 aerial view.

Image: Philip Bess/Notre Dame School of Architecture.

Philip Bess, a professor at the University of Notre Dame’s excellent School of Architecture, is directing a fascinating project called After Burnham: The Notre Dame Plan of Chicago 2109. Building on principles of classical architecture, the plan envisions the future growth of Chicago over the next century in a more holistic pattern, drawing on the traditions and philosophy of Western urbanism in past eras, and using them to shape a modern city. Bess writes:

Modernity brings with it certain genuine human goods, and the successes of modernity can be measured in part by dramatic increases in human mobility, life span, and per capita income wherever modern institutions have established themselves. But these successes come at a price. Powerful accounts abound of the human suffering entailed in the transformation of traditional societies into modern societies; and the modern view of nature as raw material for human purposes has resulted in both the potential and the reality of environmental catastrophes at unprecedented scale (often with harshest impact upon the poor) and has created wholly modern eco-discontents. Last but not least, serious questions about the cultural sustainability of modernity arise in light of the individualist / therapeutic / consumerist character-type that modern societies seem to mass-produce.

A long western intellectual tradition dating from Aristotle views cities, character virtue, and human flourishing as intimately and reciprocally related. If true —and we think it is— this should give thoughtful people pause. Ours is a time of exploding urbanization in the modernizing societies of Asia, Africa and South America, and the aftermath of nearly seventy years of American suburbanization. Both of these phenomena represent distinctively modern forms of human settlement, but neither is typically evaluated holistically with respect to the relationship of urban formal order to environmentally and culturally sustainable human wellbeing.

See After Burnham for yourself. It’s a beautiful and fascinating proposal.

Pierpont Morgan: Rome and the Romantics

Rome and the Romantics
Click on the above photo to see my full album!

An excellent exhibit at The Morgan illustrates the study of Rome by 19th-century visual artists and writers; the influence of the Grand Tour on artists of the time; and the maps and guidebooks that visitors followed. I think the images speak for themselves. My Flickr gallery has a lot more images, some of which are very close, for detail. Not too many exhibits combine ancient urban planning, Romantic-era art and writing, and 19th century cartography. We really enjoyed this one!

Urbanism Through the Ages

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman Forum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This week, a lot of media outlets covered anthropologist Scott Ortman’s recently published paper, Settlement Scaling and Increasing Returns in an Ancient Society, which analyzes the growth of cities in ancient Mexico to argue that the efficiency incentives that are driving urbanization today were also intrinsic to the growth of cities in ancient times.

I’m not sure I buy the authors’ basic assumption that the scale of monument construction can be used as a reliable metric for the incentives of urbanism. (This strikes me as a classic social scientist’s attempt to quantify something that should have been analyzed more liberally.) But, apart from that, the paper highlights something urbanists intuitively understand: cities become more productive, and dynamic, with growth. And Ortman’s work adds to the evidence that urbanists crave, namely, that people have long been drawn to urban settings by their opportunities, as well as by their mystique.

The urbanism of the Classical world offered lots of (non-numerical) ancient examples of large cities as better engines for economic and cultural output. Athens, in the fifth century B.C., was the largest city in the Greek world — and also the center of learning, artisanship, and trade, within that universe. Likewise, Alexandria was the economic and cultural capital of the Near East, during Hellenistic times; and Rome, for the entire Mediterranean basin in the first and second centuries, A.D. Modern examples might include London in the 19th century, and New York in the first half of the 20th.


The New York Review of Books has a bleak piece by Ingrid Rowland about the neglect of Pompeii, and how the layers of political malfeasance are beginning to take their toll on the ancient site. Buried for about 16 centuries, Pompeii remains one of the best-preserved examples of classical planning — right down to the unique stepping stones built into its streets; and its open forum, situated squarely at the intersection of the cardo and the decumanus maximus. For a refresher on the city, its development, and its date with destiny, here is Diana Kleiner’s lecture. For a look around the present-day site (which doesn’t look too far gone), here’s the Google Street View of the Pompeiian Forum:

Books: Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy

I recently read J.B. Ward-Perkins’ 1974 Cities of Ancient Greece and Italy. The author starts with the premise that because the classical world was an essentially urban civilization, planning was a fundamental part of its identity. He surveys the towns of the archaic Aegean shores, then delves into the record of Hippodamus of Miletus — the fifth century (BC) planner of Piræus and the Magna Græcia colonies. (A contemporary of Plato, he is also the oldest planner to be remembered by name.) After a brief look at urbanism in the east during the Hellenistic period, Ward-Perkins devotes the rest of the text to describing the development of cities in the Roman west. It’s a great quick read: The entire book is just 128 pages, and more than half of these are maps, photos, or endnotes. The maps cover all of the greatest hits of Greco-Roman urbanism, including Athens and Ostia, and a couple of my personal favorites: Lepcis Magna and Pergamon (seen below). I suspect that this book was one inspiration for Diana Kleiner’s amazing Roman Architecture class at Yale; she uses another of Ward-Perkins’ books for a lot of her assigned readings.


The Lost Public Baths of New York City

Like Caracalla and Diocletian, the mayors of New York City once also built large public baths– and for many of the same reasons that the emperors had. Michael Minn has a nice survey of the major facilities on his New York page. In the late Victorian period, at the end of the 19th century, industrial Gotham was as much a concentration of unwashed humanity as parts of ancient Rome had been, and many of the city’s residential units were just as lacking in indoor plumbing as those of the ancient world. Something had to be done. New York City’s public baths were less elaborate than those of the Romans: Their interiors were not destined to become lasting architectural marvels; nor were they divided into caldaria, tepidaria, and frigidaria; nor built to impress the city’s rich denizens. Nonetheless, public baths were a significant investment in the city’s urban infrastructure, and evidence of these facilities remains.

In the summers, when the need was highest, the pubic baths of New York City were complemented by public swimming pools and beaches. (Minn describes this at his page, above.) But by the early 20th century, the building code required inclusion of bathrooms in new units, and, over time, the city’s older buildings caught up. Subways and cars also allowed people to commute with minimal exertion and perspiration. Accordingly, the baths closed and the swimming facilities became almost purely recreational. Given today’s worries about carbon and street congestion, I wonder if there might be a new role for some range of public bathing facilities that would allow more people to walk or ride bicycles over longer urban distances— and still arrive presentably.

It’s interesting to see how many echoes of the Classical world coursed through the city-building patterns of America in the late Victorian period. Another oddball bath-related example from New York City is the architecture of the 168th Street IRT subway station (now more than a century old), and its uncanny resemblance– in tile-work, passageways, and barrel-vaulted ceilings— to the internal chambers of ancient Roman baths. Other stations of the same era also borrowed Roman bath elements, though usually more subtly. Presumably, the Beaux-Arts reverence of Classical design had a lot to do with these kinds of echoes: Graeco-Roman elements turn up often in the urban relics of a century ago. Modernists found the echoes of the ancient past too rigid, and in some ways they were. But they also provided a valuable framework and common vocabulary for city-building, and their use invested a long period of our urban architecture with symbolism of the longer cultural traditions to which its builders adhered.

Nice Bottle

What it says: “This map of Aranda del Duero is the oldest perspective map drawn in Spain in 1508. The original was made on skin and is preserved at the General Archive of Simancas. Was used as an inspiration for planning the cities of the New World, just discovered. It was presented to Queen Isabella of Castille to document the city limits where underground wineries were already producing and aging the wines from Ribera del Duero.” Note the plaza/forum, the cardo, the decumanus: it’s basically a perfect Roman frontier city. Great wine, too. Thanks, Jim!

An Online Look at Gismondi’s Rome

Here’s a large photo set posted on Flickr, by a user called MrJennings, showing Italo Gismondi’s Model of Imperial Rome, at the Museo della Civiltà Romana. The 1:250 scale model depicts the city in the time of Constantine. Snapshots of the model turn up frequently in the context of articles about the imperial city, but this is a rare look at the work itself in its entirety. Meanwhile, here’s a more interactive look (zoom, pan, etc.) that also includes a bit of a description.