Edmund N. Bacon’s Pitch for Center City’s Revival: Form, Design and The City

Click to view the 1962 film: Form, Design, and the City.

After hammering away at Philadelphia’s entrenched pessimists for more than a decade, city planner Edmund N. Bacon finally got the breakthrough he’d been looking for. In the middle of the 20th century, in the midst of decline, Bacon dared to envision a revived Center City: a modern, appealing and prosperous place to live and work. According to biographer Greg Heller, Bacon pitched this vision and honed his message in publications and exhibitions. Finally, in the Spring of 1961, he created a highly-produced presentation aimed at creating maximum impact.

On April 27, 1961, Bacon presented to the national conference of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), then meeting in Philadelphia. He walked the audience through his vision for a new Center City as he and others turned a giant, blank, 24-by-14-foot panel into a plan for the modern city. Bacon suggested Philadelphia should mind its historical past and boldly asserted that his vision, his grand “design idea,” utilized the same planning principles that guided Rome’s transformation from medieval chaos to Renaissance order.

Denise Scott Brown, a new architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania would have been in the audience. “Bacon takes a piece of chalk and slowly draws William Penn’s great crossroads and marks City Hall at the middle,” she wrote. He then brought others in to add their contributions and “the white sheet disappears; the intentions for the city slowly appear, as project after project is added…”

“The total effect is extremely impressive,” wrote Scott Brown the following year, reviewing the film version of the presentation for the Journal of the American Institute of Planners. (This was the first of Scott Brown’s published writings. For her full bibliography, see this pdf.) “The architects ‘in natural habitat’ before their plans, slightly chalky and a little abashed, are particularly successful,” she wrote. “The geometry of streets and squares behind them throws their faces and personalities into some sort of surrealist relief…”

“The performance ended with a grand finale in which the Commission staff, on two ladders, drawing and wheeling, brought the whole together by the addition of ringroads, expressways, and other circulation elements,” wrote Scott Brown. But as impressive as the giant, collaborative drawing might have been, it wasn’t quite Bacon’s final message.

Edmund N. Bacon’s concluding challenge to the architectural profession (click and go to 54:58). in his 1962 film: Form, Design, and the City.

That came in the form of a short monologue (more like a scolding of the architectural profession) by the architect turned city planner. “This is not planning as it is generally done; it is not architecture,” Bacon soberly instructed. “It is the form that should precede architecture awaiting the designer’s touch to bring it into life.”

Then he commanded his once and future colleagues: “The challenge to the architectural profession today is to prove that it is capable of designing an urban environment worth the price it costs. In order to do this, its individual practitioners will have to take a new view of their separate efforts and the profession as a whole must take a new view of itself. … Without a central design idea as an organizing force, the individual efforts under urban renewal will lead to chaos. With a central design idea, the creative energies of the individual architects will be stimulated to new heights, and the result will be truly architecture.”

What was this grand “design idea” that Bacon promised would transform Philadelphia into one of the great cities of the world? Scott Brown took issue with Bacon’s vision. “The ‘design idea’ seems basically to be a loosely linked series of architectural projects,” she observed, …it is too weak, and lacks the clarity of Penn’s original which it obscures.”

Scott Brown felt Bacon showed “little concern to discover what the city really ‘wants to be,’ quoting Louis Kahn, and crediting him as the one “who has driven so often to the root of city planning problems in Philadelphia.” Kahn’s “underlying presence” concluded Scott Brown, “pervades all thought here… even the title of the film.”

If Bacon had borrowed heavily in crafting his ideas, and fallen short in making it the most compelling case for it, at least he had captured, as Greg Heller put it, “the minds of the architectural profession.” Even Scott Brown conceded that Bacon had “started us all thinking.”

And the thinking would continue in focused fashion, just as Bacon had intended. Days after his presentation, the AIA located funding to film a re-staged version. And on March 27, 1962, the film version of Form, Design and The City premiered at the Philadelphia Museum of Art before hundreds of the city’s business and civic elite. Within a year, the film would be screened 167 times across the United States, even more internationally. Two years later, Bacon would be featured on the cover of Time magazine.

Thanks to Bacon, the promise of a positive future for Center City Philadelphia had officially made its way into the public imagination.