Architecture matters, just not in the way it does to architects. Have a look at any public architecture poll in America, and you’ll find the same buildings jostling for the top spots. The White House. The U.S. Capitol. The Jefferson Memorial. All sites that adorn paper currency, or places where important events transpire–the kinds of structures that are creatively demolished in disaster movies. These are the buildings that have been burned into the American identity. Are they also the ones that have changed America?
Probably not, per the new PBS special 10 Buildings That Changed America. Produced by Dan Protess and hosted by TV personality Geoffrey Baer, the hour-long show, which airs May 12, explores the architecture that played an influential role in the making of the country’s built landscape. Baer travels from St. Louis to Los Angeles and from Richmond to Chicago to find America’s most memorable buildings. These are highly individual, signature structures whose features have been replicated all across America. “There’s a good chance that these revolutionary works of architecture inspired your local city hall or library, the mall where you shop, the office building or factory where you work, and maybe even your own house,” Baer says.
The task of picking over America’s architectural canon was daunting. “We had a panel of 16 architects and architectural historians helping us,” Protess told Co. Design. “We asked each of them which buildings they would say changed America. None of them agreed with one other.”
Each edifice was selected for distinction in part for its unique history and for the aesthetic geist it embodied. But the focus was chiefly architectural. The buildings were judged according to their innovative structure, their consolidation of form and function, and their pioneering influence on the field. As Protess says, “This is an architecture show,” where the buildings–and not dramas–are up front and center.
To figure out which buildings “changed” America, a list of 160 buildings was drafted and a set of criteria put in place: No more than one work by any one architect, and no more than one per city. The strategy prevented the program from quickly devolving into the “Frank Lloyd Wright Show” or any other of the dozen or so Chicago-architecture specials that Baer has produced.
The constraints let them vary the kinds of buildings that would find their way on the eponymous list. In the final tally, a church (H.H. Richardson’s Trinity Church), a state capitol (Jefferson’s Richmond compound), and a corporate tower (Seagram Building) stand awkwardly alongside Eero Saarinen’s midcentury wonder, Dulles Airport, Albert Kahn’s long-suffering Ford factory at Highland Park, and Louis Sullivan’s ur-skyscraper, the Wainwright Building. The Robie House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s earliest masterpieces, naturally makes the cut, though it edges out deserving Wrightian candidates such as Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum. The Vanna Venturi House and Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center shopping mall are the not-so-surprising wildcards, while the Walt Disney Opera Hall is an excuse to include Frank Gehry, North America’s most famous architect–whose most elaborately conceived and arguably “best” work is in Bilbao.
Protess and Baer hope that the program functions as a kind of a gateway drug for the general public, most of whom just don’t “get” architecture. They’ve padded the show with eye-catching animations that break down the physics and design of a building in consumable ways. And they pepper passages with visual cues that illustrate how, say, your local bank riffs off an original Thomas Jefferson design. By making 10 Buildings relevant on the local level, they hope a national audience will tune into the show. Ultimately, they want to broaden the public’s literacy around the built environment.
As for the architects and students who catch the show, Protess admits there will be haters. But, he stresses, this is the first iteration of the project, the beginning of a discussion we can all participate in.
Read more about the show here.