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An Inside Look at America's Most Innovative Buildings

A PBS special, '10 Buildings That Changed America,' will have you seeing our cities and suburbs with new eyes

By John Stark | May 8, 2013

When I think of America’s most important buildings, this is what immediately springs to mind: the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building in New York, the Sears Tower (now officially Willis Tower) in Chicago, the Capital Records Building in Los Angeles and the White House in Washington, D.C.
So, too, the Transamerica Pyramid, which dominates San Francisco’s skyline. I grew up in the Bay Area and remember the hysterical outcry over its construction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen thought it would be a good idea if taller skyscrapers were built all around it so no one would ever have to look at it. 
But try tearing down the Pyramid today. There’d be riots. The French have an expression that old whores and ugly buildings eventually get respect.

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This Sunday at 10 p.m. Eastern time PBS is airing “10 Buildings That Changed America.” Not one of the predictable buildings that I mentioned above made the list, which makes sense when you see the hourlong show. “You may not have heard of all these 10 buildings, but their influence is all around you,” says host Geoffrey Baer, who has narrated previous PBS documentaries on architects Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern and Mies van der Rohe.
The special, produced in partnership with the Society of Architectural Historians, unveils its choices in chronological order, starting with the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, and ending with the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, by architect Frank Gehry. All 10 buildings set a style that defined an era.

There’s no one singular look to American architecture, but many. It's a field that, like everything else in our country, is continually changing, evolving and reversing itself.

Jefferson, we learn, was adamant that the first architecture of our new nation be a declaration of our independence. For that reason the Virginia State Capitol, built in 1788, borrowed from Greek and Roman design instead of British. The building’s clean lines and sharp symmetry represented a new look for a new country. It became the architecture of our nation’s capital.
The program's nine other buildings, which include two houses, a church, an airport and a shopping mall, were all breakthroughs in construction, form and use. They’re important because they not only invoked the spirit of an era, they set architectural trends.
The Seagram Building on New York’s Park Avenue, for example, reimagined the skyscraper as an elegant glass box with a public plaza in front. It grew to define America’s skyline, though it set the bar high. We learn that architect Mies Van der Rohe was told to spare no expense on the materials. It shows. Quality endures. The skyscraper's countless imitators look like bargain-basement knock-offs. That's the problem with trends.

In Edina, Minn., the nation’s oldest fully-enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall was built in 1956. Southdale Center's architect, Victor Gruen, was a socialist who wanted to bring downtown to the growing suburbs. To that end he created an indoor shopping plaza with 72 stores, parking lots, a petting zoo and a Garden Court of Perpetual Spring. He nobly saw himself as providing a cure to urban sprawl. Southdale only spawned more imitators. I know. I live nearby. It's now in a sea of malls, professional buildings and parking lots.

When Frank Lloyd Wright took a tour of it, he said Gruen should have left downtown downtown.
The PBS special opens a door into each of the architects’ minds and how they saw form and function. Interviews are conducted with Frank Gehry and Robert Venturi, who in 1964 designed the Vanna Venturi House outside Philadelphia. He's now a fiesty 87. The quirky house, with a staircase going nowhere and a chimney designed, according to Venturi, as an obscene gesture, is his slap in the face of architects who tried to achieve perfection in their buildings, like Mies Van der Rohe. The Vanna Venture House is credited with launching the postmodern movement.

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I love architecture, but don’t know too much about it. How many times when I lived in Boston did I pass Trinity Church without realizing it’s the blueprint for our country’s churches, courthouses and city halls? Or flown into Dulles International Airport without grasping that it was the first airport in the world created expressly for jets and how its sleek design imitates flight? Or that the ranch house I grew up in in California can trace its roots to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago?

The French saying about buildings and whores doesn't apply to any of these structures. They have always been beautiful, and always commanded respect. What they all haven't always gotten is our full attention. They are the groundbreaking originals that define our nation's eras. Looking at them, we're seeing ourselves.