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Remembering Philadelphia Planner Ed Bacon

William Fulton on
Oct 1, 2005

By the time I actually met Ed Bacon in person, the legendary urban planner who died last week at the age of 95, he was already in his late 80s, cranky and quirky. He had just read my book The Reluctant Metropolis, which reminded him that I had written a magazine article many years before that he had liked. He called me up out of the blue one day to discuss whether I should write – or help write – a biography of his life.

I was flattered that this legend of urban planning contacted me and agreed to meet with him on my next East Coast trip. Only later did I realize that I was not alone. Ed Bacon had flattered any number of writers over the years with exactly the same offer, and no one had ever made a writing deal with him.

So I visited him at his Rittenhouse Square house in Philadelphia. He proved to be chatty, charming, strongminded – even obsessive. The centerpiece of the house was an elaborate model on the third floor of his vision for how to improve Independence Mall. Characteristically incensed that the city’s planners had proposed a plan he didn’t like, he built the model at his own expense to prove his idea was better. He had fought the city’s plan so hard that the planners of the day regarded him to be cantankerous almost to the point of being a gadfly. This was classic Bacon.

Bacon was born in Philadelphia in 1910 and was trained as an architect in the beaux-arts style at Cornell during the late 1920s – “I was there before the Modernists arrived,” he once told me. His zenith came during the 1950s and ’60s, when as executive director of the Philadelphia Planning Commission he engaged in the most successful urban revitalization efforts of the era. He razed eight square blocks around Independence Hall to create a more formalistic setting, reviving the neighboring historical neighborhood of Society Hill in the process. He tore down the “Chinese Wall” – a large railroad bridge next to Philadelphia City Hall – to make room for the Penn Center office complex. And he rejected architect Louis Kahn’s starkly modernist plan for the downtown.

Bacon had a way of coming across as naïve, but he accomplished things no one so naïve could have done. He was part of a political reform movement that pulled Philadelphia out of the machine era; and he helped rewrite the city charter in a way that gave the Planning Commission – and, hence, him – more power than in almost any other city. He once told me that he did it by writing policies that would kick in far in the future, beyond the time horizon of all the politicians.

More than anything, however, he succeeded because he had an artist’s vision and a monarch’s will.

His vision was the city as the experience of moving through space – a path or a shaft – and most of his plans used this idea as the focal point. His idea of an implementation technique was to use the force of a will so strong that he seemed unable to separate Philadelphia from himself. The first chapter of his classic book Design of Cities is titled “The City as an Act of Will.” In our first conversation at his house, he suggested that, having written a book about Los Angeles called The Reluctant Metropolis, I should now write a book about Philadelphia called The Acquiescent Metropolis.

“Acquiescent to whom?” I asked.

He looked at me in disbelief. How could I not know? “Why, to me, of course,” he replied.

Tethered to such a strong personal vision and a strong personal will, Bacon did not seem to notice or care about the city’s changing demographics, or the growing significance of race and class in planning discussions, and eventually this made his seem old-fashioned and out of date. Bacon’s decline began in the mid 1960s, when he went toe-to-toe with advocacy planners such as Paul Davidoff over the proposed construction of a freeway on the edge of Society Hill.

The freeway would have required the demolition of the black neighborhood adjacent to increasingly tony Society Hill. Bacon, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania’s architecture school, favored the freeway; Davidoff, who taught in the Penn planning school, opposed it. Davidoff won and Bacon lost, thus setting off a trend in advocacy planning and a corresponding decline in physical planning that lasted until the New Urbanists emerged a quarter-century later. (Another side effect of this battle was that my brother, who for many years ran a retail beer store on Bainbridge Street called “Society Hill Beverage,” had to stock an extremely wide range of beers to meet the diverse market demand in the surrounding neighborhoods.)

Even today, 40 years later, almost all planning students read Davidoff’s classic article, “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning.” But not very many of them read Design of Cities. The New Urbanists revived Bacon’s reputation to a certain extent; Design of Cities is on every New Urbanist reading list because Bacon’s physical determinism and his formalistic design impulses jibe with New Urbanist thinking. Oddly, however, even the New Urbanists don’t really talk all that much about Bacon’s accomplishments.

I think that’s because most of his urban design ideas, such as Penn Center, were implemented during the height of the Modernist era, and New Urbanists having a hard time admitting that good urban design can be created in a Modernist style. But Penn Center is good – not perfect, but an excellent example of experiencing a city by moving through space, constructed at a time when such accomplishments were rare. It stands as a perpetual reminder that Modernist architecture and bad urban design don’t always go together.

I once asked Bacon why, given the force of his will and the breadth of his vision, he went along with Modernism in revitalizing downtown Philadelphia. And the great idealist gave me a surprisingly pragmatic answer. “I wouldn’t have chosen it,” he said, “but it was what I had available to me at the time.”

I went to planning school at the height of the advocacy planning era and consequently gained almost no formal education in design. But I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia during the ’70s, before I moved to Los Angeles, and so in a way I learned my urban design inside Bacon’s mind. Many years later, when urbanism old and new came back into style, I was thankful that that I had this education to fall back on.

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