Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912) was a renowned architect and city planner. He built some of the first skyscrapers in the world, he successfully managed and directed the construction of the phenomenal 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and his ideas on urban planning revolutionized the American City. He is also widely-known to have said:
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…Make big plans; aim high in hope and work…”
Although this is just the first part of the quote (in fact, some claim he never even uttered the words), the sentence nevertheless, captures the essence of the man, his work, and the sentiment he sought to inspire.
An extremely successful architect and businessman, his work, while not universally loved, was nonetheless respected – if not for its creativity, then certainly for its breadth and daring. His impact on American architecture and urban planning cannot be denied. The man himself was a paradox: politically progressive but conservative in taste; a pragmatist and a dreamer; and a complex man both efficient and indulgent. So, it’s not surprising that some have said of his work that, through it, he sought to connect concepts often thought of as contrasting, especially the practical and the ideal.
To be sure, Burnham was no iconoclast. He was, in fact, a “classicist,” but he did think big. You can see it in his greatest works like the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition, which, with its scale and grandeur, far exceeded all other world fairs and itself became a symbol of the emerging strength of America at the turn of the 20th century. While Burnham never “played it safe,” he did not heedlessly “go for broke” (two options which only rarely offer satisfaction). Indeed, his works stand as an example to all who seek to create by making the connection between “the practical and the ideal,” and delivering in a big way.
So, in this sense, the last part of his famous quote is also instructive, when he states that though we should think “big” and “aim high,” we should do so all the while “remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.” So, dream big, but plan well. Good advice, whether he ever actually said it, or not.