Make No Little Plans

Skyscrapers–New YorkSecond to my love of language, I love buildings. At one point, prior to learning that calculus and physics weren’t my forte, I planned on becoming an architect. I went through a series of sketch pads as a child and built my creations out of Legos. Even now, I still sketch floor plans on scraps of paper or in the margins of other documents.

For all that we’ve managed to advance, particularly on the technology side of things, I’m still amazed by what men and women can physically build today and what they built in the past. In spite of our technical abilities, we still aren’t sure how the Egyptians built their pyramids, and how Stonehenge was put together. The most amazing thing? These objects still stand after thousands of years.

Tied in with our desire to build, we also seek to push the boundaries of what’s possible. The tallest skyscrapers reach into the clouds, seeming to defy gravity. Ancient people had their own obsession with building tall (see pyramids). According to the Bible, one such civilization focused on building a tower to heaven.

I’m always amazed at how architects can envision a complete structure where none previously existed and then design it from the walls out. Perhaps my admiration for buildings has more to do with the very visible and tangible declaration that someone created something that others can see. Part of me is also jealous because not everything I do creates something tangible or visible.

William Le Baron Jenney, the father of the American skyscraper, designed what is considered the first American skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. At ten stories, this skyscraper would be dwarfed by the soon to be finished Burj Dubai tower that has at least 146 floors (the official height isn’t yet released). However, Jenney started it all by addressing the issue of load-bearing masonry walls. He flipped the design inside out, switching the load to an interior steel frame that supported everything, allowing buildings to climb higher.

Jenney’s apprentice, Daniel Burnham, captured the spirit of what these new buildings stood for: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood,” he said. “Make big plans.” (link) Officials repeatedly shut down construction on the Home Insurance Building because Jenney’s design contradicted everything they’d seen in the past. Eventually, they got it, and while they understood that Jenney’s building would stand, I’m doubtful that they recognized the change it represented for every cityscape. Can you picture a New York or a Chicago without its skyscrapers?

I worry that we’ve stopped dreaming and planning big. People don’t vote because they believe their one vote doesn’t make a difference. People settle for mind numbing jobs because they don’t believe there’s anything better. Am I wrong? What big plans are you making? What’s your skyscraper?


(Image courtesy of swisscan.)


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December 2007
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