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The City Beautiful Movement was a Progressive reform movement in North American architecture and urban planning that flourished in the 1890s and 1900s with the intent of using beautification and monumental grandeur in cities. The movement, which was originally most closely associated with Chicagomarker, Detroitmarker, and Washington, D.C.marker, did not seek beauty for its own sake, but rather as a social control device for creating moral and civic virtue among urban populations. Advocates of the movement believed that such beautification could thus promote a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life and help to remove social ills.


Origins and impact

The movement arose in large cities in the United States in response to the crowding in tenement districts, a consequence of high birth rates, increased immigration and consolidation of rural populations into cities. The movement flourished only for several decades, but in addition to the classicizing monuments it left, it also achieved great influence in urban planning that extended throughout the 20th century, in particular in regard to the later creation of housing projects in the United States. The "Garden City" movement in Britain influenced the contemporary planning of some newer suburbs of Londonmarker, and there was cross-fertilization between the two esthetics, one based in formal garden plans and urbanization schemes of the Baroque the other, with its "semi-detached villas" evoking a more rural atmosphere.

Architectural idioms

The particular architectural style of the movement borrowed heavily from the contemporary Beaux-Arts movement, which emphasized the necessity of order, dignity, and harmony. The movement also borrowed from classical monumental planning but differed from the true neoclassical style in that in the City Beautiful movement, the classical idiom was adopted only partially, mixed with Beaux-Arts elements, and subjugated as means to the end of creating uniformity and harmony in style.

World Columbian Exposition

The first large-scale elaboration of the City Beautiful is considered to have been the "White City", as it came to be called, at the World Columbian Expositionmarker of 1893 in Chicago. The planning of the exposition was headed by architect Daniel Burnham, who brought in architects from the eastern United States, as well as the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to build large-scale Beaux-Arts monuments that were vaguely classical with uniform cornice height. The exposition displayed a model city of grand scale, with clean state-of-the-art transport systems and no visible poverty. The exposition is credited with leading to the wide-scale embrace of the monumental idiom in American architecture for the next 15 years. Richmond, Virginiamarker's Monument Avenue is one expression of this initial movement.

Louisiana Purchase Exposition

The momentum begun by the World Columbian Exposition was accelerated at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. In 1901 the commissioner of architects selected Franco-American architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray to be Chief of Design of the fair. In this position, which Masqueray held for three years, he designed the following fair buildings in the prevaling Beaux Arts mode: the Palace of Agriculture; the cascades and colonnades; the Palace of Forestry, Fish, and Game; the Palace of Horticulture; and the Palace of Transportation; all of which were widely emulated in civic projects across the United States. Masqueray resigned shortly after the fair opened in 1904, having been invited by Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul to Minnesota to design a new cathedral for the city in the fair's Beaux Arts style. Other celebrated architects of the fair's buildings, notably Cass Gilbert, who designed the Saint Louis Art Museummarker, originally the fair's Palace of the Fine Arts, similarly employed City Beautiful ideas from the fair throughout their lives.

McMillan Plan

An early use of the City Beautiful ideal with intent of creating social order through beautification was the McMillan Plan, named for the Michigan Senator James McMillan, which arose from the Senate Park Commission's redesign of the monumental core of Washington, D.C.marker to commemorate the city's centennial and to fulfill unrealized aspects of the city plan of Pierre Charles L'Enfant a century earlier.

The Washington planners, who included Burnham, Saint-Gaudens, Charles McKim of McKim, Mead, and White, and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., visited many of the great cities of Europe with the intent of putting Washington on par with the European capitals of the era and creating a sense of the legitimacy of government in a time of social upheaval in the United States. The essence of the plan surrounded the United States Capitolmarker with monumental government buildings to replace "notorious slum communities". At the heart of the design was the creation of the National Mallmarker and eventually included Burnham's Union Stationmarker. The implementation of the plan was interrupted by World War I but resumed after the war, culminating in the construction of the Lincoln Memorialmarker in 1922.

Influence in other cities

The movement's success in Washington is credited with influencing subsequent plans for beautification in many other cities, including Chicagomarker, Clevelandmarker, Columbusmarker, Montrealmarker, Denvermarker, Madisonmarker (with the axis from the capitol building through State Street and to the University of Wisconsin campus), New York Citymarker (notably the Manhattan Municipal Buildingmarker), Pittsburghmarker (the Schenley Farmsmarker district in the Oakland neighborhood of parks, museums, and universities), and San Franciscomarker (manifested by its Civic Centermarker). In Wilmington, Delawaremarker, it inspired the creation of Rodney Square and the surrounding civic buildings. In New Havenmarker, John Russell Pope drew up a plan for Yale Universitymarker that swept away substandard housing, but banished the urban poor to the peripheries.


Capitol building in Denver

In Denvermarker the energy behind extensive City Beautiful planning came from Mayor Robert W. Speer, whose plan centered round a Civic Center, disposed along a grand esplanade that led to the Colorado State Capitolmarker. The plan was partly realized, on a reduced scale, with the Greek amphitheater, Voorhies Memorial and the Colonnade of Civic Benefactors, completed in 1919. The Andrew Carnegie Foundation funded the Denver Public Library (1910), which was designed as a three-story Greek Revival temple with a colossal Ionic colonnade across it front; inside it featured open shelves, an art gallery and a children's room. Monuments capping vistas were an essential feature of City Beautiful urban planning: in Denver Paris-trained American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies was commissioned to design a monument marking the end of the Smoky Hill Trail. The bronze Indian guide he envisaged was vetoed by the committee and replaced with an equestrian Kit Carson.

City Beautiful movement in Australia

Both European and North American cities were looked to for inspiration for the Australian City Beautiful movement. A combination of elements around 1900 also influenced the movement:
  • It was thought that Australia, being a country that was relatively newly settled by Europeans, had wasted an opportunity to comprehensively and aesthetically design cities from scratch.
  • Australian cities were seen as lacking beauty and civic pride.
  • The lack of architectural features and extensive street advertising were also concerns. This was attributed to “materialism, apathy, short-sightedness, political interference and indifference”.
  • Utopian city plans were another influence on the Australian City Beautiful movement. A better Brisbane, for example, was described by Louis Esson and illustrated by Lloyd Rees with a Parisian influence.

However, City Beautiful was not solely concerned with aesthetics. The term ‘beautility’ came out of the American city beautiful movement, which meant that the beautification of a city must also be functional. Beautility, including the proven economic value of improvements, went on to influence Australian town planning.

There were no formal city beautiful organisations that lead this movement in Australia, rather it was influenced through communications by professionals and bureaucrats, in particular architect-planners and local government reformers. In the Federation era Australians were determined that their cities be seen as progressive and competitive. Adelaide was used as an Australian example of the “benefits of comprehensive civic design” with its ring of parklands. Beautification of the city of Hobart, for example, was seen as a way to increase the city’s popularity as a tourist destination.


In his design for Canberra, Walter Burley Griffin incorporated City Beautiful principles. Griffin was influenced by Washington “with grand axes and vistas and a strong central focal point” with specialised centres and, being a landscape architect, used the landscape to complement this layout. John Sulman, however, was Australia’s “leading proponent” in the City Beautiful movement and, in 1921, wrote the book An Introduction to Australian City Planning. Both the City Beautiful and the Garden City movements were reflected in Sulman’s “geometric or contour controlled” designs of the circulatory road systems in Canberra. The widths of pavements were also reduced and vegetated areas were increased, such as planted road verges.


The City Beautiful movement in Australia was a progressive step towards holistic planning. Melbourne’s grid plan was seen as dull and monotonous, and so the architect William Campbell designed a blueprint for the city. The main principal behind this were diagonal streets, providing site for new and comprehensive architecture and for special buildings. The designs of Paris and Washington were major inspirations in this blueprint.

City Beautiful Today

World War I prolonged the City Beautiful movement in Australia, as more memorials were erected than in any other country. Although City Beautiful, or artistic planning, went on to become a part of comprehensive town planning, The Great Depression of the 1930s largely halted this movement. Today, however, in Australia, many streets are tree-lined and streetscapes and skylines are regulated. This largely came about as a result of the city beautiful movement.


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