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A Look at '10 Buildings that Changed America'
May 11, 2013  | By Eric Gould  | 5 comments

10 Buildings that Changed America
, the upcoming PBS special on architecture, isn't all about buildings that are the most beautiful or dramatic. (Although, hey, look up...) To the contrary, a couple are downright nondescript, including a big-box 1950s mall in Minnesota and an auto factory in Detroit.

But the idea is that the buildings selected for this list were so game-changing, so influential, they forever altered what we know as the modern home and workplace. And the stories behind them are worthwhile, as well.

10 Buildings, premiering on Sunday, May 12 at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings) is compactly written by producer Dan Protess and hosted by the inquisitive, engaging Geoffrey Baer. It's architectural history as an informal, informative romp, for designers and non-designers alike. The two collaborators, along with some notable experts including Paul Goldberger (former architecture critic for the The New Yorker), are quick-witted with their subject matter, and let the air out of a topic usually inflated with high-brow rhetoric.

10 Buildings first decodes the ubiquitous Greek Temple facade. It turns out that the oft-used front, the public face of banks and libraries since the 18th century in America, is not simply the classical relic we usually associate with power and longevity.

Protess points out that one of the earliest uses of that architecture in America was by Thomas Jefferson for the Virginia State Capitol in 1788, not because the classicism was considered an symbol of power, but instead, a revolutionary image of democracy. Jefferson chose it in clear opposition to all the Georgian (British, that is) architecture that was the main style of the day.

From there, 10 Buildings looks at an early Chicago house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that exploded the ordinary box and went on to be adapted by American architects for decades. Included are archival clips of the infamously cantankerous architect, filmed in his later years, with his arrogant Grumpy Old Man routine still in full bloom.

One of the more stark and still-beautiful buildings on the list is Louis Sullivan's 19th century clay-colored Wainwright Building in St. Louis — an early version of the modern skyscraper that went on to influence a half-century of buildings to follow.

It's here that Protess and his production team excel, breaking down the the three-part (or tripartite) scheme for viewers. Video graphics show how the base, mid-section and cap are distinguished, yet unify the composition to accentuate the building's height. An old, yet radical work of design is made refreshingly accessible.

And for accessibility, no one seems more so than final guest Frank Gehry. Currently America's most recognized architect, he's known for his metal-wrapped museums. Shaped like billowing sails, they deliriously curl and swerve. And Gehry certainly fits the bill for the shows’ search for maverick architects who boldly made unconventional work that's emblematic of American individualism.

10 Buildings
includes Gehry’s swooping Disney Concert Hall on its list (top photo). It's a worthy example of his incomparable achievement of turning architecture into large-scale public sculpture. And, although the sheen and allure of the Disney project is understandable, the show perhaps errs on its omission of another Gehry work.

It was Gehry's own residence — a low-budget renovation and an addition done in 1977 from corrugated metal panels and chain link fencing — that perhaps stands as his most significant project.
Appearing as little more than wreckage, or a warehouse left unfinished, only small glimpses of the original pink Santa Monica bungalow can be seen behind the raucous metal suit.

Repeatedly published after it was completed (with some articles celebrating it, but with most reviling it) the house earned Gehry immediate recognition. It set the stage for all his world-wide commissions to come after it, and inspired thousands of architects, many of whom continue to emulate Gehry's method of brash, colliding forms.

But quibbling with the list is half the fun of shows such as 10 Buildings. For every finalist on the list, there are another 10 behind those that could fit the bill just as well. For now, the ones chosen for the PBS special serve the discussion of American design — and American change — very well.

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Video visuals demonstrate how the building's base, middle, and top are each distinct but also blending together to emphasize the height of the structure.
Sep 29, 2023   |  Reply
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Aug 27, 2023   |  Reply
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Apr 27, 2022   |  Reply
So glad you wrote about this. Thanks. I'll be looking for it. And speaking of Louis Sullivan, the bank he designed in Owatonna, Minn., is one of my favorite buildings anywhere. Google it if you've never seen it.
May 13, 2013   |  Reply
Noel - That's one of Sullivan's "strong box" banks – known for their squarish shapes and the muscular, punched openings. You really can't do the proportions better than he did, and you can see the direct influence on his assistant's eventual body of work... Frank Lloyd Wright.
May 13, 2013
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