Character of and in American Architecture

By Roth, Leland M. | Phi Kappa Phi Forum, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Character of and in American Architecture

Roth, Leland M., Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Most people--users, that is, as opposed to designers and critics--seldom think of architecture as anything more than a mute utilitarian container. Yet architecture, whether or not we take it in consciously, is nonverbal communication. Architecture speaks volumes about the values and priorities of the designer or architect, and of those who built the structure. This view of architecture has been voiced by many commentators, including the nineteenth-century critic John Ruskin, who observed in his preface to St. Mark's Rest (1877) that nations "write their autobiographies in three manuscripts--the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the other two; hut of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last." Architecture is the most accurate, the most truly revealing cultural artifact.

A few tubes of paint are all that is needed to create a canvas; paper and typewriter (or nowadays a computer) are the only requirements to create poetry or a novel. Music initially requires only pen and staff paper, hut to be realized requires musicians and a studio or performance hall. Architecture, in contrast to all the other durable arts, comes into being only through the coordinated efforts of client, architect, builder, and scores of workmen; therefore--because it requires such a formidable financial investment--caprice and personal whimsy are normally restricted, replaced by the pressures of what is truly important in the culture of client, architect, and builder. Architecture is a "bottom-line" art form. Moreover, who we are and what we do are influenced, if not determined, by the architecture around us. As Winston Churchill suggested in speaking to Parliament in 1944, "we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us."

We sometimes speak of a quest for an authentic American architecture that, however, with every generation eludes definition. In the beginning, when our European forebears first settled in the New World, there was no thought of creating a uniquely American architecture. We started out as a few hundred transplanted Swedes, French, Dutchmen, Spaniards, Britons, and subjugated Africans, and we built in the ways to which we were accustomed "back home." In the individual colonies, versions of the normal, everyday architecture that was common back home sprang up--around Stockholm, in the pays of France, next to the canals of Amsterdam or Delft, in the churches of Mexico or even Spain, or in the villages of East Anglia. The forcibly transplanted peoples from the West Coast of Africa built houses, when they were permitted to do so, as they had done at home--long, narrow houses that would, in a hundred years or so, become the so-called shotgun house of the lower Mississippi valley.

One significant exception to the transplanted vernacular building forms was a uniquely original building type in the Puritan settlements of Massachusetts Bay. Spurning the pomp and liturgical formalism of the Church of England, the Puritan separatists determined not to erect churches to house their worship but instead created a straightforward, four-square, unembellished barn-like structure to house their worship services, their town assemblies, and to provide shelter for the community in times of tumult. Because the term "church" was too firmly linked to the Church of England, a new term, "meeting house," came into use to describe these austere, multifunctional structures.


Toward the end of the seventeenth century, several developments fundamentally changed the appearance of architecture in the colonies. One was a political change as the various European colonies were absorbed in a pervasive English political and cultural aggregation, from Georgia to what would become Maine. Another was an artistic change as individuals aspired to assume the social position that expanding fortunes made possible. …

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