“Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”
When Daniel Burnham said this, he was an architect who was at the top of an architect’s world. He was in the process of designing the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a neoclassical playground highlighting all the great gifts of the mechanical age and the rebirth of the city ravaged by fire 22 years earlier. It was the right time and place to think big. The bosses of Chicago loved it, and the people were enthralled.
The quote itself has taken on a life of its own in the last hundred and some years. The phrase, “Make no small plans,” has been used to justify nearly every project of great scale and scope, independent of time and place. It appears to be justification in and of itself. Why think big? Nothing else will “stir men’s blood”! “Stirring” seems to be what the late twentieth century was about, nevermind that “stir” is a slang term for “prison”.
The way this quote is used, however, shows the kind of prison created by this attitude. The quote is sometimes given as “They have no magic to stir men’s souls”, which suggests the desired effect is more spiritual than temporal. My favorite is the variation “They have no power to capture the imagination”, as if imagination needs capturing. What do you do with an imagination that is captivated or captured? Place it in a kind of prison, I suppose. We certainly don’t want a lot of imagination running around that isn’t properly sanctioned by the Planners of Big Things.
It may seem strange to see large projects as a kind of civic prison, but a quick look at what Burnham was all about shows the problem. His neoclassical style was relentlessly conservative, even while his scale was anything but. In that sense, the masive Corinthian confections he created can best be seen as fascist, especially since his scale and style was cribbed heavily by Albert Speer for the Nazi redesign of Berlin. In this architectural world, heaven and earth were described long ago, and you peasants who traipse through it are tiny in comparison. Your only role is to be “stirred”. No less a critic than Chicago colleague Louis Sullivan said that Burnham “Set architecture back fifty years”.
One of the more fascinating variations on this quote is that it is often attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli. I searched through the Prince, the Discourses, and all the other known documents of the great pragmatist and found no reference to it at all. It certainly does not sound like ol’ Niccolo to me, but more like Gilded Age Chicago bluster. Where did this misattribution come from? It seems obvious to me that someone realized that this statement has little to do with art, but a lot to do with power – and how it is made real to the masses.
In the end, we have to look at the work that inspired Burnham to make this pronouncement, The Columbian Exposition, celebrating 400 years of Columbus’ footprints in this hemisphere, was a big show. But it was made entirely of plaster, and had to be torn down as soon as the fair was over. Not a thing exists today. It appears to have been nothing more than a variation on the “Bigger Better Deal” (BBD) kind of con, where someone is suckered out of their money by making their imagination work against their common sense.
In a certain sense, all big projects that see the catchphrase “Make no small plans” trotted out are nothing more than cons. It is a justification that defies comparison to anything but your imagination. It assumes that being “stirred” is the most noble goal in life. What is most telling is how the quotation has been warped over the years to reflect each new generation of cons. The original was justification for a neoclassical style that has simply passed out of existence, but that is not what is important. There’s always a BBD that can “stir” people to think and act far beyond the scale of their ordinary lives. What remains unanswered is why anyone thinks this is necessarily a good thing.
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