Decoding Design

Ten buildings that changed the United States

Posting in Architecture

If you had to name an iconic American building, what would it be? A forthcoming TV series looks at ten examples of U.S. architecture that influenced culture and business in America...and beyond.

The Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles

If you had to describe the quintessential American building, what would it be? A soaring skyscraper? A hip Modernist house? A shopping mall?

An ambitious TV series and accompanying Web site, both titled 10 Buildings That Changed America, have just started production and will explore iconic U.S. architecture. They will present structures that "changed the way we work, live, and play," according to the Web site. The buildings were chosen by a group of practicing architects as well as architectural experts, in partnership with the Society of Architectural Historians. Chicago PBS station WTTW is producing the show, hosted by Emmy Award-winning producer Geoffrey Baer, and it's scheduled to air in 2013.

Here's the list:

  1. Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, VA
  2. Trinity Church, Boston, MA
  3. Wainwright Building, St. Louis, MO
  4. Robie House, Chicago, IL
  5. Highland Park Ford Plant, Highland Park, MI
  6. Southdale Center Mall, Edina, MN
  7. Seagram Building, New York, NY
  8. Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, VA
  9. Vanna Venturi House, Chestnut Hill, PA
  10. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA

The list seems to cover a wide variety of styles and eras. All are widely considered highly influential buildings by numerous sources, and when each was built, they had a profound effect on shaping the community in which it was created--and far beyond. Most are historical landmarks.

The Virginia State Capitol (designed by Thomas Jefferson) might look like any old government building today, its forms echoing those of libraries and courthouses around the country. And that's because when it was built, in 1785, it sparked the Classical Revival movement in America. Its style influenced the design of public buildings all over the U.S. The Wainwright Building also probably looks very familiar; that's because it set the standard for American office skyscrapers when the rectangular 10-story edifice was built in the late 19th century. The rectangular Robie House (by Frank Lloyd Wright) was a daring precursor to Modernist architecture when it was built in the early 20th century. Frank Gehry's curvaceous, shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in the early 21st century, symbolizes the power of architecture and design to revive a community's economy. In the case of this building, it was downtown Los Angeles.

The Robie House in Chicago

Trinity Church was designed in the 1870s with an open auditorium area, which reflected a new, democratic style of worship in America. And the Vanna Venturi House, created by architect Robert Venturi for his mother in the early 1960s, is widely considered an icon of spare, modern simplicity echoed in many buildings and homes today.

And then on the list are some possibly surprising picks, because they might not be as aesthetically pleasing as others. The rather nondescript Highland Park Ford Plant, in Highland Park, MI, for instance, was a prototype for the 20th-century American factory. It included a constant assembly line, which cut down the time it took to make a 1913 Ford Model T car from 728 to 93 minutes. And the Southdale Center Mall, in Edina, MN, might not seem as glamorous as the sleek Seagram Building (designed by architectural legends Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson and completed in 1958) or the elegant Dulles Airport terminal (designed in the late 1950s by another design legend, Eero Saarinen). But the Southdale Center was the first enclosed regional shopping center in the U.S. when it opened in the mid-1950s, setting the tone for mall culture in America and around the globe for decades to come.

The Highland Park Ford Plant

Brought together in this list, the buildings seem to tell the story of not only U.S. architecture, but also suggests a narrative of how American culture and business developed. Will the list be debated? Probably, especially in the era of quick and opinionated online comments. Is it full of safe bets, though? Yes. For a general audience, 10 Buildings that Changed America promises to introduce them to not only the history of architecture in the U.S., but also how design has helped shape the nation's commercial and social landscapes, too.

Images: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Carol Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons; Robie House, Cervin Robinson/Wikipedia; Highland Park Ford Plant, Andrew Jameson/Wikipedia

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure