American architecture

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American architecture, the architecture produced in the geographical area that now constitutes the United States.

Early History

American architecture properly begins in the 17th cent. with the colonization of the North American continent. Settlers from various European countries brought with them the building techniques and prevailing forms of their respective homelands. Colonial architecture was subsequently adapted to the topography and climate of the chosen site, the availability of building materials, the dearth of trained builders and artisans, and the general poverty of the settlers.

Only in New Orleans, where the French government sent skilled architects and engineers, was anything produced that approached the sophistication of architecture in France. The comparatively short Spanish domination of Florida also produced highly complex structures, including the fort at St. Augustine (begun 1672). The Spanish impress was more permanent in the American Southwest, where settlers borrowed extensively from the Native American techniques of construction in adobe. Mexican baroque details and church forms appeared in a new and simpler guise, as in the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California missions. The Dutch, who settled in New Amsterdam (now New York City), were traders for the most part, and examples of their residential work can be seen throughout the Hudson River Valley.

The English settlements were of two basic types: the small town in the North and the large plantation in the South. In New England settlers erected many-gabled houses of wood with prominent brick chimney stacks of late Gothic inspiration, such as the Parson Capen House in Topsfield, Mass. (1683). In the South, brick rapidly superseded wood as the chief building material, as for example, in St. Luke's Church in Smithfield, Va. (1632). The formality and classicism of 18th-century English architecture was almost immediately reflected in the colonies, as in the official buildings of Williamsburg, Va. or the Pennsylvania Statehouse in Philadelphia (begun 1731).

During this time a growing prosperity and widening commerce brought a new influx of well-trained artisans, and English architectural books became increasingly available. Many Protestant churches were adapted and simplified from contemporary English styles designed by such architects as Christopher Wren and James Gibbs. Among the American examples are Christ Church in Philadelphia (begun 1727) and St. Paul's Chapel in New York City (1764–66). Pioneer building techniques, however, persisted on the Western frontier where settlers often built cabins of logs or later of sod.


Toward the end of the colonial period, architectural styles based on a more precise study of ancient Roman and Greek buildings were beginning to appear in Europe. This shift in taste coincided with the American Revolution, and the neoclassical style became closely identified with the political values of the young republic. In interior decoration, the Adam style (see Adam, Robert), as it was then popularly known in England, was soon translated to American use through the pattern books of Asher Benjamin.

A more monumental aesthetic, which became known as the Federal style, was typical of the work of Charles Bulfinch in Boston and of Samuel McIntire in Salem, both of whom were among the growing number of native-born designers. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave serious thought to architecture and were deeply involved in the planning and building of Washington, D.C. Both statesmen looked to the classical world as the best source of inspiration. Jefferson's conception of the Roman ideals of beauty and proportion was elegantly expressed in his design for the Virginia state capitol at Richmond (1785–89).

Architecture, previously the domain of gentlemen amateurs and master builders, became increasingly professionalized in the first half of the 19th cent. The field was also greatly enhanced by the arrival of several European architects, including the English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Architectural books continued to exert considerable influence as well. The later pattern books of Asher Benjamin and those of Minard Lafever spread the taste for classicism beyond the major cities of the east coast to the hinterlands.

The South built great mansions during the antebellum period, often with two-story colonnades, such as Dunleith Plantation in Natchez, Miss. (c.1848). In both port cities and small towns there was a subtle shift in taste from the earlier Roman-based classicism to Greek sources. Prominent Greek revival buildings of the period include William Strickland's Merchant's Exchange in Philadelphia (1832–34) and Robert Mills's Treasury Building in Washington, D.C. (1836–42).

Other Styles

Simultaneously, other revival styles began to compete nationally with classicism. In the Southwest, the Spanish tradition, occasionally modified by Eastern influences (as in California), remained dominant until the Mexican War. The English-based Gothic revival style became increasingly popular after 1835, especially for houses and churches. Prominent examples include A. J. Davis's Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, N.Y. (begun 1838) and James Renwick's St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City (1853–88). The widely distributed books of A. J. Downing on the picturesque cottage style and landscape gardening further advanced the trend. Other revival styles popular at the same time included the Italian villa and the Lombard Romanesque.

The writings of John Ruskin began to influence American architects at about the time of the Civil War, and a short-lived fashion for Victorian Gothic buildings ensued, such as Frank Furness's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (1872–76). The trend toward historical eclecticism intensified in the decades following the Civil War. Newly wealthy patrons commissioned buildings in styles characterized by unbridled ostentation, as for example Richard Morris Hunt's designs for the sprawling mansions of Newport, R.I. The highly influential Henry Hobson Richardson designed massive, dignified buildings in an abstracted Romanesque style that contrasted sharply with the surrounding eclecticism. During this period many architects went to Paris, if possible to the École des Beaux-Arts, to receive their training. Architectural schools were established in the United States along the model of the École, beginning with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1865.

The Birth of Modernism

Although divided by stylistic eclecticism, the United States took the lead in the development of advanced building technologies in the second half of the 19th cent. Engineering became a distinctly separate profession, and works such as the Brooklyn Bridge by John and Washington Roebling (1869–83) number among the most impressive of all American achievements. The technical innovations of this era included the use of cast iron, steel, and reinforced concrete in construction.

The trend toward functional design, which had been steadily growing, reached its greatest expression in the works of the so-called Chicago school of architecture led by Louis Henry Sullivan. Sullivan broke completely with historical eclecticism and used modern materials in such a way as to emphasize their function. The commercial buildings and skyscrapers of Chicago and other cities built under his influence were admired for their power and originality as well as for the rational organization of their parts.

Neoclassical Revival

Classicism triumphed once again, however, largely because of the 1893 Columbian World Exposition in Chicago. The major architectural firms that participated in the fair reinvigorated the classical tradition nationwide, often at an imperial scale, as for example in McKim, Mead, and White's Pennsylvania RR Station in New York City (1906–10). Despite the efforts of Sullivan and his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright, neoclassical doctrines adapted from the École des Beaux-Arts remained solidly entrenched for many decades after the turn of the 20th cent. There were noticeable exceptions to this, particularly in the domestic realm, where the English Arts and Crafts movement implemented by William Morris had a lasting influence in the United States.

Modern American Architecture

Wright, generally acknowledged as one of the greatest architects of the 20th cent., developed a highly original approach to residential design before World War I, which became known as the "Prairie Style." His early work, executed in and around Chicago, combined open planning principles with horizontal emphasis, asymmetrical facade elevations, and broad, sheltering roofs, as seen, for example, in his Robie House (1909). Wright, who stood apart from the European-derived modernist mainstream, continued to design buildings into his old age, producing some of his finest and most idiosyncratic works, such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York City (1946–59).

The unornamented, machine-inspired aesthetic of European modernism was introduced to the United States through such foreign-born architects as Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, and William Lescaze during the 1920s. Later dubbed the International style, this functionalist mode of architecture became preeminent in the United States after World War II, particularly in the design of corporate office buildings. Notable examples include Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Lever House (1952) and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1956–58), both in New York City. With the immigration to the United States of such prominent Europeans as Walter Gropius and Mies, the curricula of many American architectural schools were revamped along the lines of the Bauhaus in Germany.

Around 1960 a formal and theoretical reaction to the International style began to take shape as architects became increasingly disenchanted with the sterile aestheticism of much postwar building. Louis I. Kahn reintroduced axial planning and other Beaux-Arts principles, while Eero Saarinen experimented with dynamic sculptural forms. In addition, Robert Venturi argued for the value of studying the vernacular and commercial landscape, thus broadening the theoretical foundations of modern design and ushering in the postmodern era. By the early 1980s postmodernism had become America's dominant style, particularly for public buildings. At around this time, the United States, often an importer and interpreter of modernist architectural trends, became an exporter of postmodernist concepts. In postmodern design, architects such as Philip Johnson (in one of his many changes of architectural style), Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey, Robert A. M. Stern, Charles Moore, Helmut Jahn, Thomas Beeby, and others recombined ornament, historicism, technology, and often vivid color in diverse, eclectic, and often witty manners. Among postmodernism's most notable buildings are Graves's Portland Building (1982), Portland, Oreg., and Johnson's AT&T Building, now the Sony Building (1978–84), New York City. While postmodern architecture remained a dominant mode in the 1990s, some contemporary architects have created their own styles. Foremost among these is Frank Gehry, whose asymmetrical, sculptural buildings using both common and unusual materials, are an architectural world unto themselves. One of his finest works is the monumental and organic titanium steel Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (1997).


See H. Morrison, Early American Architecture (1952); T. Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America (1944, repr. 1964); F. Kimball, Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and Early Republic (1922, repr. 1966); V. J. Scully, American Architecture and Urbanism (1969) and The Shingle Style and the Stick Style (rev. ed. 1971); L. M. Roth, A Concise History of American Architecture (1979); W. H. Pierson and W. Jordy, American Buildings and Their Architects, (4 vol., 1986).

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American architecture