PBS special looks at buildings that changed America

By Tish Wells

McClatchy Newspapers

“10 Buildings That Changed America” is a history of something so taken for granted that you may never look at a shopping mall or a skyscraper again in the same light.

Geoffrey Baer leads viewers through more than a century of change in American architecture. He intertwines the rise of America with changes in our urban, and not so urban, landscape. As new inventions changed culture, they were installed into our biggest cities, and became the templates for new looks

It starts with Thomas Jefferson’s 1788 design and concepts for the Virginia State Capital in Richmond. Baer points out that Jefferson was not the first architect to discover that distance and time can undercut his vision — the grand front steps weren’t built until after his death.

Ninety years later, the Trinity Church in Boston set a style now found in many older urban cities — Richardsonian Romanesque. Created by H.H. Richardson, it had “heavy walls of rough-faced stones, round arches and massive towers,” says Baer. This style spread across the United States in many public buildings in the late 1800s, including post offices.

Every wonder why so many skyscrapers are glass boxes? They followed the lead of the Seagram Building in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1958.

Baer covers the redesign of the single-family house by Frank Lloyd Wright, and later by Robert Venturi in 1964. Wright’s used his prairie style, while Venturi took his inspiration from children’s drawings.

Factory change goes back to Henry Ford’s first assembly line in Highland Park, Mich., in 1910. Viewing archival footage of the original, one sees a vast difference 100 years later.

If you’ve ever wondered why indoor shopping malls look cookie-cutter, check out the first one, Southdale Center in Edina, Minn. The architect, Victor Gruen, was offended by strip malls and wanted to stop suburban sprawl.

As Tom Fisher of the University of Minnesota says, “He really envisioned malls as community centers, rather than places you go to shop.” Gruen was disappointed when the indoor malls took off in popularity — and created more sprawl.

The swooping roof of Dulles International Airport in Virginia, created in 1962, and the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall created by Frank Gehry a little more than 40 years later, introduced and then re-introduced curves into architecture.

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