PBS series follows path of American architecture

Like outer space, wildlife, and the history of mankind before it, American architecture is about to become the subject of its very own television miniseries. Premi`ering tonight on PBS (8 p.m., check local listings), the eight-week series Pride of Place: Building the American Dream explores the development of architecture in America from its earliest days to the present.

With noted architect and scholar Robert A. M. Stern as host, the series is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Mr. Stern, who has railed for years at the anti-historical stance of modernism, believes architecture represents the dreams of a better world and ``has always depended on a dialogue between the present and the past.''

Tonight's episode, ``The Search for a Usable Past,'' takes us to Plimoth Plantation, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, George Washington's Mount Vernon, Michael Graves's Spanish Colonial-inspired library in San Juan Capistrano, PPG Place in Pittsburgh, and the new AT&T building in New York City. Of special interest are conversations with architect Jaquelin T. Robertson at Monticello about Thomas Jefferson and with noted modern architect Philip Johnson at his Glass House estate in New Canaan, Conn.

Later episodes deal with campuses (from St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., to Loyola Law School in Los Angeles), dream houses (Mark Twain's in Hartford, Vizcaya in Miami), suburbs (from Riverside and Pullman, Ill., to Levittown), resorts (Newport, Palm Beach), interiors (Marshall Field's Chicago department store, Washington's National Gallery of Art), and America's unique contribution to architecture, the skyscraper (the Woolworth and Seagram Buildings in New York, Transco Tower in Houston).

The many interviews -- with such architects as Stanley Tigerman in Chicago, Frank Gehry in Los Angeles, and Susana Torre at San Simeon -- are treated as extemporaneous conversations, giving the show an informal and relaxed pace.

While Stern is no Carl Sagan or Alistair Cooke, and his gestures sometimes seem forced, he does have a strong concern for the subject that is ably voiced in his on- and off-camera narration.

The series, billed as ``a personal view'' by Stern, is filled with delightful turns of phrase. He describes Mount Vernon as ``the Lenin's Tomb of American architecture,'' and remarks of the aesthetically barren University of Illinois at Chicago Circle: ``Perhaps the bureaucrats who named the campus after a traffic circle got the architecture they deserved.''

Documentary clips of Frank Lloyd Wright and others, home movies of William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies at San Simeon, and advertising footage add immeasurably to the enjoyment of the series. The new cinematography at more than 100 locations across the country is outstanding. The film images -- aerial, ground-level, and close-up -- combined with an uplifting musical score by Carl Davis, make for glorious television.

The nearly $2.5 million series, sponsored by Mobil Corporation and presented by South Carolina Educational Television, was produced by Malone Gill Productions, which did ``Alistair Cooke's America'' and Lord Kenneth Clark's ``Civilisation,'' among others.

Carleton Knight III writes regularly on architecture for the Monitor.

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