The Many Flavors of US Architecture
Home-grown designs nestle next to imports from around the world
If, as Goethe proposed, architecture is frozen music, America has churned out a veritable Baskin-Robbins gamut of flavors.Skip to next paragraph
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Mesa Verde cliff dwelling, Spanish adobe, Federal, neoclassical, sod, gingerbread gothic, bungalow, steel skyscraper, prairie Wright, elephant folly, international modern, glass-curtain highrise, postmodern, post-postmodern, strip-mall camp - to name just a few of the styles, and anti-styles, that scroll past like a near-endless diorama, punctuating the landscape from sea to shining sea.
Using Bill Clinton's phrase, if you put together an architectural cabinet that "looks like America," you would have a disparate but seldom boring mix of native-grown structures and imports from many places and quite a few different centuries.
Even the imports arrive in strange ways. Both thoroughly native Frank Lloyd Wright and thoroughly Bauhaus International Walter Gropius separately credited the great 17th-century Katsura moon-viewing pavilion outside Kyoto, Japan, as the fountainhead of modular-modern architecture, a style that didn't appear in America for another three centuries.
Seldom does the US landscape achieve the uniformity of an all-limestone Italian or French hill town or a gray tile-roofed Japanese village. But what the American built landscape often lacks in harmony it more than makes up in visual surprise. Not much sonata form; lots of improv.
Given Americans' tendency toward birdwatching, sport-car identifying, and Elvis-spotting, it's surprising that we don't engage in more architecture-watching. Perhaps that's for lack of a good guide. We go to Monticello, the Empire State Building, or the Guggenheim Museum because a travel guide tells us we ought to.
Now, thanks to the Princeton Architectural Press, the great American architectural guidebook, G.E. Kidder Smith's, "The Architecture of the United States," has been enlarged, updated, and reissued. Its new title: Source Book of American Architecture: 500 Notable Buildings from the 10th Century to the Present. It's a marvel: the Roger Tory Peterson of buildings.
I first became acquainted with Kidder Smith's robust writing and keen eye in a book analyzing the magically comfortable central squares of Italian villages. He starts the current survey of 10 centuries of American buildings with the equally organic, equally anonymous designers who created the 600-room, four-to-five story masonry town of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico in AD 919. Then it's on to Mesa Verde, 16th-century Hawaii, Spanish influences, Plymouth Plantation, the arrival of Greco-Roman columns, until his chronological selection of 500 notables reaches the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Denver Airport.
Selecting a limited number of anything - favorite operas, quarterbacks, or dog breeds - is bound to be controversial. But the winning thing about Kidder Smith is that he isn't apologetic about his opinions. Nor does he spray a fog of architectural metaphysics. He likes forthrightness in design (and words), and dislikes artifice and Potemkin faades, but not playfulness.
A sample of his flavor: "Frank Furness - 'fearless Frank' he has with reason been called - was probably the gutsiest architect who ever walked the North American continent. His extraordinary buildings... apotheosize boldness, exude power even when small in size, and clearly anticipate what is now called the New Brutalism - they are preposterously wonderful.... He is probably the only architect in the United States to win the nation's highest military honor."