Film Reveals the 10 Buildings That Changed America

Influential Architecture, Made in the USA

These ten buildings are featured in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) film, 10 Buildings That Changed America. Hosted by Chicagoan Geoffrey Baer, this 2013 film sends the viewer on a whirlwind journey of architecture all over the US. What buildings influenced the way Americans live, work, and play? Here they are, in chronological order from oldest to newest.

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1788, Virginia State Capitol, Richmond

Virginia State Capitol, white with columns
Virginia State Capitol. Photo by Don Klumpp/Photographer's Choice Collection/ Getty Images

Virginia-born U.S. President Thomas Jefferson modeled his state's Capitol after the Maison Carrée, a Roman-built temple in southern France. Because of Jefferson's design, Greek- and Roman-inspired architecture became the model for many of the famous government buildings in Washington, DC, from the White House to the U.S. Capitol. When America became a world financial capital, the neoclassicism became symbolic of Wall Street wealth and power, still seen today at 55 Wall Street and in the 1903 New York Stock Exchange Building in New York City.

Richardsonian style Trinity Church near modern skyscraper Hancock Tower in Boston, Massachusetts
Trinity Church and Hancock Tower in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston's Trinity Church Reflected in Hancock Tower © Brian Lawrence, courtesy Getty Images

Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts is a prime example of architecture from the American Renaissance, a time after the U.S. Civil War when nationalism flourished and American identity was being formed. Trinity's architect, Henry Hobson Richardson, has been called "America's first architect." Richardson rejected imitating European designs and created a new American architecture. His style, known as Richardsonian Romanesque, is found in many older churches and libraries throughout America. More »

Photo of St. Louis skyscraper from 1891, known as the Wainwright Building
Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building, St. Louis, MO. Wainwright Building designed by Louis Sullivan, Courtesy of WTTW Chicago, PBS Press Room, 2013

Chicago architect Louis Sullivan gave the skyscraper a "graciousness" of design. The Wainwright Building in St. Louis is not the first skyscraper ever built—William LeBaron Jenney is often acknowledged as the Father of the American Skyscraper—but the Wainwright is still standing as one of the first skyscrapers with a defined aesthetic, or sense of beauty. Sullivan determined that "the tall office building, should, in the very nature of things, follow the functions of the building." Sullivan's 1896 essay The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered outlines his reasoning for a three-part (tripartite) design: the office floors, having identical functions on the inside, should look the same on the exterior; the first few floors and the top floors should look different than the office floors, because they have their own functions. His essay is known today for the adage that "form ever follows function."

The skyscraper was "invented" in America and is considered by many to be a building that changed the world. More »

Photo of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago, Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago, Illinois. FLW's Robie House © Sue Elias at flickr.com, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Frank Lloyd Wright, America's Most Famous Architect, may also be America's most influential. The Robie House in Chicago, Illinois, exemplifies Wright's most significant design—the organic prairie style. The open floor plan, non-gabled roofline, walls of windows, and attached garage are features familiar to many suburban American homes.

Video: Characteristics of the Robie House More »

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1910, Highland Park Ford Factory, Detroit

Photo of Highland Park Ford Plant, birthplace of the moving assembly line.
Highland Park Ford Plant was the birthplace of the moving assembly line. Photo of Highland Park Ford Plant, PBS Press Room, Courtesy of WTTW Chicago

Within the history of American automobile manufacturing, Michigan-born Henry Ford, revolutionized the way things are made. Ford hired architect Albert Kahn to design a "daylight factory" for his new assembly line.

As a boy in 1880, German-born Albert Kahn emigrated from Europe's industrial Ruhr Valley to the Detroit, Michigan area. He was a natural fit to become America's industrial architect. Kahn adapted the construction techniques of the day to the new assembly line factories—reinforced concrete construction created large, open spaces on the factory floor; curtain walls of windows allowed natural light and ventilation. No doubt Albert Kahn had read about Frank Lloyd Wright's Plan for a Fireproof House made of concrete and George Post's glass wall at the new New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Building in New York City.

Learn More:

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1956, Southdale Shopping Center, near Minneapolis

Photo of escalators inside America's oldest shopping mall
Southdale Center in Edina, MN, America's first fully-enclosed, indoor shopping mall (1956). Victor Gruen's Southdale, PBS Press Room, Credit: Courtesy of WTTW Chicago, 2013

After World War II, the American population exploded. Real estate developers such as Joseph Eichler in the West and the Levitt family in the East created suburbia—the Housing for the American Middle Class. The suburban shopping mall was invented to accommodate these growing communities, and one particular architect led the way. "Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century," writes author Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker magazine. "He invented the mall."

Gladwell explains:

"Victor Gruen designed a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant shopping complex with a garden court under a skylight—and today virtually every regional shopping center in America is a fully enclosed, introverted, multitiered, double-anchor-tenant complex with a garden court under a skylight. Victor Gruen didn't design a building; he designed an archetype."

Learn More:

  • Southdale Mall, Minnesota Historical Society
  • The Terrazzo Jungle by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker
  • Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream by M. Jeffrey Hardwick, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010
    Buy on Amazon

Source: "The Terrazzo Jungle" by Malcolm Gladwell, Annals of Commerce, The New Yorker, March 15, 2004

Photo of modern skyscraper in New York City, Seagram Building by architect Mies van der Rohe
Seagram Building, New York, NY (1958), by architect Mies van der Rohe. Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building from PBS Press Room, Credit: Courtesy of WTTW Chicago, 2013

The Seagram Building is part of the International Style of architecture popular in New York City in the 1950s. The 1952 United Nations building, on the shores of the East River, exemplifies this style. With the Seagram Building, German-born Mies van der Rohe moved this design inland five blocks—but without the luxury of space that surrounds the U.N.

Skyscrapers cannot block sunlight to the street, according to NYC building codes. Historically, this requirement was met architecturally by designing setbacks, a step-design seen on the top floors of older buildings (for example, 70 Pine Street or the Chrysler Building). Mies van der Rohe took a different approach and created an open space, a plaza, to replace the setback requirement—the entire building is set back from the street, leaving alone the building's architecture. The plaza designed for the Seagram Company was trendsetting and influenced the way Americans live and work in urban areas. More »

Jet over Dulles Airport
Jet over Dulles Airport. Jet over Dulles by Alex Wong/Getty Images ©2004 Getty Images

Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen may be best known for designing the Saint Louis Gateway Arch, but he also designed the first commercial airport of the Jet Age. On a large tract of land nearly 30 miles from the capital of the United States, Saarinen built an elegant, expandable, airport terminal that combined classical columns with a very modern, swooping roof. It was a design symbolic of the times, ushering in the future of international travel. More »

Photo of television host Geoffrey Baer near postmodern house designed by Robert Venturi
PBS host Geoffrey Baer in front of The Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia. PBS host Geoffrey Baer in front of Vanna Venturi House courtesy PBS Press Room, 2013

Architect Robert Venturi made his mark and a modern statement with this house built for his mother, Vanna. The Vanna Venturi House is considered one of the first examples of postmodernism architecture.

Venturi and architect Denise Scott Brown take the viewer inside this interesting house in the PBS film 10 Buildings That Changed America. Interestingly, Venturi concludes the tour saying, "Don't trust an architect who's trying to start a movement." More »

The 2003 shiny stainless steel covering of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
The 2003 shiny stainless steel covering of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Walt Disney Concert Hall by David McNew/Getty Images ©2003 Getty Images

Architect Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall has always been touted as "acoustically sophisticated." Acoustics is an ancient art, however; Gehry's real influence is felt in his computer-aided designing.

Gehry is known to use Computer-Aided Three-dimensional Interactive Application (CATIA)—aerospace software—to digitally design his complex buildings. Construction materials are manufactured based on digital specifications, and lasers are used by construction workers to piece them together on the work site. What Gehry Technologies has given us is successful, real-world, digital architectural design. More »

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10 Buildings That Changed America, PBS, 2013
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