American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Part 1
Staking claim, shaping space

The first European settlers in what is now the US saw the American landscape as virgin territory, raw and undeveloped. They brought with them tools and memories, patterns and conventions, which they used to shape their new homes. The tools and memories they retained for some time; the patterns and conventions, however, needed to be adapted to the new environments—quite different from those left behind in Europe—if people were to survive and prosper. The land shaped the people as they shaped it.

Never again would the American continent seem so utterly and frighteningly void of design as it did to these first settlers, so in need of ordering systems for its habitation and successful exploitation. As environmental historian John R. Stilgoe demonstrates, the grid provided Europeans with one of their first and most successful tools for ordering this space. Focusing in this excerpt on the grid’s practical and economic advantages, Stilgoe shows how the design of a mercantile city like Philadelphia became a template for shaping other towns and territories across the American continent.

While European settlers did not always recognize or appreciate their efforts, Native American groups had long preceded them in shaping the land for human habitation. Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton provide a broad introduction to Native-American architecture, one that extends across time, region, and culture. They consider technology, climate, economics, social organization, religion, and history as the major “modifying factors” in traditional Native-American building; meanwhile, they see buildings themselves as indicative of the elements dominating the lives of particular groups. A brief discussion of the architectural and cultural effects of contact with Europeans concludes their essay and points to two important, related themes: cultural borrowing, hybridity, and translation in architecture, and architecture’s role in the expression of cultural continuity and identity.

Seeking a foothold in the harsh, remote northern limits of New Spain, while dependent on Indian labor and restricted to the same limited range of materials available to local native groups, European settlers in what is, today, New Mexico, were likewise confronted by these issues. In establishing missions and “rationalizing” existing Indian construction techniques as they did, the Spanish aimed to assert a European presence in the “wilderness.” Marc Treib, an architect by training, offers here a detailed examination of the design, construction, and form of Spanish-colonial-era sacred spaces in New Mexico. Following this, Dell Upton, a former student of historical archaeologist James Deetz and folklorist Henry Glassie, looks at other spaces, both sacred and secular, through a

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