Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia (1788)

Thomas Jefferson’s design for Virginia’s capitol established neoclassical architecture as the building style for the new democracy’s civic structures.

Trinity Church, Boston (1877)

Designed by H.H. Richardson, Trinity Church would inaugurate the architect’s Romanesque Revival period and spawn countless imitators across the country.

Wainwright Building, St. Louis (1891)

Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building was, in the architect’s own words, the "tall office building artistically considered." The structure was the most celebrated of Sullivan’s pioneering steel skyscrapers.

Robie House, Chicago (1910)

The Robie House is the finest example of the Prairie House School, a building style initiated by Frank Lloyd Wright which favored horizontal planes, deep overhangs, and earthy materials. Critics of the house referred to it as a "steamship."

Highland Park Ford Plant, Highland Park, Michigan (1910)

When it opened in 1910, Albert Kahn’s Ford Plant at Highland Park was the largest automobile factory in the world. The four-story, open-plan structure was to launch Kahn’s career and where Henry Ford would perfect his assembly line.

Southdale Center, Edina, Minnesota (1956)

Victor Gruen conceived of the Southdale Center, the world’s first all-enclosed shopping mall, as a veritable "middle ground" solution between the city and the countryside. Twenty years after its opening, Gruen would express contempt for the developers who had co-opted his idea for their own ends.

Seagram Building, New York (1958)

Designed by Mies van der Rohe, the Seagram Building redefined the American skyscraper, and thus, the skyline of American cities for a generation. All of its imitators lack the structural elegance and material finish of Mies’s original design, not to mention the public plaza on which the tower stands.

Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia (1962)

Eero Saarinen’s jet-age design for Dulles Airport, located 26 miles from Washington, DC, is a rare synthesis of architecture and engineering. The structure, which consists of angled pylons holding aloft a swooping roof, was meant to rival Washington’s monuments.

Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia (1964)

Robert Venturi’s Vanna Venturi House takes the name of the architect’s mother, for whom the young designer and polemicist fashioned this Post-modern home -- the first of its kind. The facade is well-known for its child-like proportions; peer inside to find other oddities, like a stairway that leads nowhere.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles (2003)

The box died with the Guggenheim Bilbao, which catapulted its architect Frank Gehry to global prominence. By the time Gehry opened the Disney Opera Hall, architects were fatigued with the metallic wind-swept forms, indiscriminately jostled together. The public loved it.

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Are These The 10 Buildings That Shaped America?

The PBS special, 10 Buildings That Changed America, examines the buildings that define our cultural history and shape the cities and towns we live in. Should these have made the cut? Find out which 10 won and why.

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.

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  • Klostom

    Thanks Sammy, enjoyed the article.

    By the way, you would be hard-pressed to find any opera performances at the Walt Disney Concert Hall.