As long as I can remember, I’ve been curious about buildings. I grew up in Buffalo, New York near some homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. One of my earliest schoolgirl memories is knocking on the door of a Wright house because it looked interesting. I asked the owner if I could come inside to look around. Remarkably, she let me. The spaces were amazing to me.

I trained as an architectural historian at Columbia University but it was while working at the State Historic Preservation Office in Connecticut that I became interested in telling stories about buildings to all kinds of audiences. Then we used slides. When I moved to Chicago, I began to produce stories on film and video for television broadcast and for historic properties.


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I’d been producing programs about Chicago’s architecture, history and urban design for five or six years when I noticed that Daniel Burnham’s work seemed to touch every aspect of the city—the development of the skyscraper and the Chicago River, parks, Michigan Avenue as the cultural spine of Chicago and even neighborhoods. In the media, his name would often be invoked on different sides of the same issue—as if people still wanted him on their side. Burnham died in 1912. Why was he still important to us?

Or was he? There were books galore about his gifted younger contemporaries Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, but the last biography of Burnham was published forty years ago. Who was this man and what did he stand for? That’s what we were about to explore in a five-year adventure that took us to places we’d never heard of, to experts we hadn’t met before and to descendants of Burnham’s own family.

As an architect and planner, Burnham thought big at a time when America was in an expansive mood. He enjoyed enormous success leading one of the largest architectural firms in America. He was a leader, a generous colleague and a visionary planner. But his legacy remains controversial. How big is too big? Does borrowing from the past betray the present? And how and for whom should cities be planned?

Copyright 2004 - 2011 • The Archimedia Workshop

Judith Paine McBrien

Production Team: Ben Chandler, Joe Langenfeld, Jim Morrissette, Jan Sutcliffe, Mary Morrissette, Dan O’Leary, Judith Paine McBrien, John Murray- at Tribeca Flashpoint Media Arts Academy

Jim Morrissette, Director of Photography and Technical Advisor