Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Best in American Architecture - Two Bits for a Gander?

Let us take a step back from real estate to look at an interesting news piece in the wider realm of ‘living spaces’ for just a moment.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) released a poll today of Americans’ 150 favorite architectural structures, taken by surveying everyday Americans across all regions, professions, and races. The results have many architectural purists shaking their heads and asking deeper questions.

You can access the complete list here.

The top ten is merely the tip of the iceberg. With mainstay architectural triumphs such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Empire State and Chrysler towers in New York City, the juggernauts of American design are surely represented. But the trend seems to go overboard with six of the remaining top tens being selected as Washington DC memorials – more postcard photographs than spaces for living.

But it gets weirder. The Bellagio Hotel and Casino (No. 22) beats out architectural masterpieces such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (No. 29) and the Rookery Building in Chicago (No. 128), arguably the world’s first skyscraper.

Nearly all of the historical textbook standouts were represented, but familiarity obviously triumphed over sophistication. Most of the leading entries had that picture-postcard quality – like the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the World Trade Center (note: no longer standing), and the Washington Memorial.

Several important structures were indeed given the cold shoulder, including Thomas Jefferson’s masterful University of Virginia campus and the most-influential 20th century works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who failed to record an entry on the list. Chicago critics – who praise their city as the birthplace of modern American architecture – scoffed at the delayed entry of their hometown landmarks until Number 31 – with the often crumbing, conglomeration of concrete and wood that is Wrigley Field. The Sears Tower (No. 45) and Tribune Tower (No. 38) followed late, with the John Hancock Building (which was awarded the AIA 25-year award for enduring design) not even making the list.

The method by which the structures were shown to participants – in the form of a single two-dimensional photograph – may have something to do with the outcome. Top winners seemed to reflect some sort of national or political iconography. How can a structure, in its entire intricate design and function, be reduced to one 4” by 6” glossy?

But maybe the results also have something to do with the way Americans have come to think about the place we inhabit. Would we rather spend our time in a façade of granite that looks nice in textbooks than a structure of beauty, design, and architectural purity that serves as the landscape of our modern cities?

I don’t know about you, but I rather live in the natural elegance of Fallingwater, than the fleeting glitz and glamour of a Las Vegas slot machine.



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