Source: SAH News, the Newsletter of the Society of Architectural Historians
Date: February 2006
Byline: Gregory Heller
In Memoriam: Edmund N. Bacon, 1910-2005
On 14 October, America lost one of its most signifi cant, colorful, and controversial 20th-century fi gures: Ed Bacon. From 1949 to 1970, as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Bacon dramatically transformed the shape of his hometown, becoming one of the most infl uential big city administrators of the Post-World-War-II era. Famous for his visionary ideas and combative demeanor, Bacon’s face graced the cover of Time magazine in 1964, and he became a household name in Philadelphia and a recognized national fi gure.
Bacon successfully brought the eyes of the nation to Philadelphia, as his design concepts became some of America’s largest redevelopment projects, including Penn Center, Market East, Society Hill, Penn’s Landing, and Philadelphia’s Far Northeast. An architect by training, and eventually Emeritus Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, Bacon was renowned as a powerful administrator and also as a visionary designer. Much of Bacon’s success came through his skill as a communicator and salesman of his ideas. He emphatically broke down professional barriers, transforming himself into a singular civic leader and urban advocate.
Edmund N. Bacon was born in Philadelphia on 2 May 1910. He was educated in architecture at Cornell University and subsequently studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art with Eliel Saarinen. Bacon worked as an architect in China and Philadelphia, and as a planner in Flint, Michigan. After a failed attempt to bring public housing to Flint, Bacon returned to Philadelphia and became Director of the Philadelphia Housing Association. Bacon was instrumental in drafting and gaining support for the 1942 ordinance that created Philadelphia’s modern planning commission — an agency that, under Bacon’s leadership, would attract some of the nation’s fi nest talent. He also became deeply involved in Philadelphia’s political and charter reform movement.
Bacon enlisted in the Navy during World War II. During his service, he was invited to co-design the 1947 Better Philadelphia Exhibition — a massive display of planning ideas. Bacon worked on this exhibition with Louis Kahn, Oskar Stonorov, and the Planning Commission’s fi rst Executive Director, Robert Mitchell. It took up two full fl oors of Gimbel’s department store, and was visited by hundreds of thousands in its two-month stint. The main attraction was a 30-foot by 12-foot, full-scale model of downtown. Following the exhibition, Mitchell hired Bacon to the Planning Commission staff, and in 1949 Bacon became Executive Director. During his 21-year career, Bacon was involved in a multitude of projects, sat on the White House’s Panel on Recreation and Natural Beauty, and wrote Design of Cities, considered one of America’s most important books on urban design.
Bacon frustrated some of his colleagues and delighted others. In the early 1950s, he had a famous falling out with Louis Kahn over the design of Penn Center. Conversely, Bacon had a very positive relationship with I.M. Pei. In the planning of Society Hill, Bacon helped prescribe a program for an architectural competition to design apartment buildings, mandating that they should be slab structures. Pei, not well known at the time, competed, but defi ed the program, creating towers rather than slabs. Nonetheless, Bacon recommended that the judges select Pei, because he felt that Pei’s solution was superior. Pei has since acknowledged that he positioned his Society Hill Towers to coordinate with the “Greenway System” that Bacon designed. Bacon is often compared to Robert Moses, as a big-project planner. While many of Bacon’s projects were large, he did not clear communities and displace hundreds of thousands of residents, as Moses famously did. Bacon was much more community focused. For example, Society Hill, largely considered Bacon’s most successful project, was the fi rst major effort in which Urban Renewal dollars were used to rehabilitate historic houses and preserve a neighborhood.
Also unlike Moses, Bacon never had the power or access to fi nancial resources that allowed Moses to oversee projects from beginning to end. Instead, Bacon relied on the power of his design concepts to inspire others, and his salesmanship to communicate his ideas. As a result, Bacon’s projects often turned out differently than he hoped.
Bacon was not by any means perfect. His personality at times created enemies and impeded progress. In Society Hill, existing residents were displaced for the area’s revitalization, and Bacon supported the demolition of 19th-century buildings — then considered less signifi cant than the Colonial structures. Some of Bacon’s projects, like the ill-fated Crosstown Expressway, elicited public outcry and were never built.
After his retirement from the Planning Commission in 1970, Bacon served as vice president of a private planning fi rm, was a professor at the University of Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania, and narrated a series of planning fi lms. While most retired public fi gures fade into the background, Bacon remained in the spotlight and continued to be at the center of controversy. In the 1980s, he battled Willard Rouse whose Liberty Place ultimately broke the “gentleman’s agreement” that Bacon had maintained, that no structure could be built taller than City Hall. In the 1990s, Bacon proposed concepts to improve Independence Mall, Penn’s Landing, and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
In 2002, a 92-year old Bacon illegally rode a skateboard in LOVE Park — the urban plaza that he fi rst designed at Cornell then implemented in the 1960s — in protest of the City’s ban on the sport. The plaza had become a world-famous venue for “street skateboarding,” a form of the sport that adapts to existing features in the urban environment. Bacon believed that the city is an organism that people adapt over time. He loved the nature of street skateboarding; young people had invented a new use that reinvigorated the urban plaza and made it a famous attraction.
This final major act of his life is emblematic of Bacon’s colorful, compelling character and enduring spirit. Bacon was remarkably able to stay relevant throughout his lifetime. Now that he is gone, his legacy gives us much to consider as we refl ect on an extraordinary life that has left its mark on American urban design.
– Gregory Heller, President, The Ed Bacon Foundation (www.edbacon.org)