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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Character of and in American Architecture


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.