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« Architecture Linkage | Main | Binary Stoplights »

April 10, 2009

Little Architecture History Lessons

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm often dismayed by the lack of familiarity many educated Americans have with their country's architectural history. Because they're familiar with the two Franks -- Gehry and Lloyd Wright -- they think that they've got it covered. Hey, America: Architecture-and-urbanism is as big, wild, and wonderful a field as American music. It's seething with geniuses and talents, as well as fab, sexy, and instructive stories about money, ego, and power. Go for it.

Side benefit: Once you get the hang of the basics, what we architecture-and-urbanism buffs like to call "the built environment" becomes comprehensible and eloquent. Why, the entire world is an art exhibit!

  • Paul Goldberger writes an excellent introduction to the Chicago Beaux Arts (think Paris-style) titan Daniel Burnham, who gave us New York's iconic Flatiron Building as well as Washington D.C.'s glorious Union Station.
  • Here's a posting from me about Addison Mizner, a larger-than-life fantasist / designer / entrepreneur who popularized the Mediterranean Revival, one of America's most lasting and crowd-pleasing styles.



UPDATE: So how is the recession affecting America's love affair with the exurbs? Interesting Fact for the Day: "While an average of 19 new malls per year were built in the United States during the 1990s, not a single new mall has been built in the last two years."

posted by Michael at April 10, 2009


Michael, did you mean educated Americans, or educated people (Canadian, German or otherwise)?

Like I said in your previous post, I personally have not found much difference in this aspect.

And again, said in your earlier post, if we were to use the number of people getting excited, or angry, about New Urbanism, I have not found America to be lacking.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on April 10, 2009 12:29 PM

"Why, the entire world is an art exhibit!"

Pure Vedanta!

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 10, 2009 4:24 PM

I don't doubt that the recession has put a temporary halt to mall building, but I doubt that Americans want to turn their back on malls.

I visit the Garden State Plaza (one of the largest malls in the world) in Paramus, NJ quite frequently. I was there last night. It was very difficult to find a parking place. Police were on hand to direct overflow traffic.

The joint was jumping. Every teenager in Bergen County seemed to be there. The AMC Theaters were filled to capacity. In some areas of the mall, pedestrian traffic was so heavy you could barely walk.

It's a great show in the mall. Teenagers do their strutting and mating outside their favorite stores. I particularly like the Apple store. The mall has numerous restaurants, including upscale, midrange and fast food. This mall mirrors the incredible ethnic variety of northern NJ... lots of Asians, blacks and Hispanics as well as whites. Tons of babies being pushed in strollers. You would be horrified by the Asians, blacks and Hispanics, Michael. They like to have four or more kids. The more the merrier! I love seeing the big families.

If you really want to see oodles of kids, visit Costco in Hackensack. Big families shop there as a matter of survival. The aisles are full of running, jumping and screaming kids. Kids fall asleep in the shopping carts. I get a big kick out of them.

It's a great place for people watching.

Michael, get over the Manhattan snobbery. People love the malls precisely because they can drive there. They drive SUVs so they can take the kids and pack in the groceries and supplies. Why keep vexing yourself over this odd desire you have to improve our aesthetics? What in the world do you hope or expect to accomplish?

You know, I used to live in Manhattan. I like the Manhattan snob world, too. It's got a lot to offer. What I don't like about the Manhattan snob world is their weird desire to remake the rest of the world in the image of Manhattan. Why in the world do you see that as necessary or desirable?

When I was younger, living in San Francisco and Manhattan, I engaged in the same snobbery. I can't remember why that was so important to me. It seemed very important at the time. Now, I just wonder why I wasted my time on that crap.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on April 11, 2009 3:09 PM

UL -- Educated Americans. They often seem to know a fair amount (and have interesting-enough opinions) about music, books, and movies, but have zero awareness of the whole built-environment thing. I certainly hope you're right and I'm wrong about this, though.

Charlton -- Englightenment, it's not so hard ...

ST -- If you think of me as someone who wants to rebuild the world in the image of Manhattan, you've got me majorly wrong.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2009 3:19 PM

Has anyone else been affected by SimCity? That was my gateway into urban planning/architecture. (Not that I know that much, but it at least sparked an interest.) Once you've played that game for hours on end, it's hard not to look at one's built environment a little differently.

Posted by: Bryan on April 11, 2009 3:27 PM

Bryan -- I've only stared at SimCity for a few minutes (no penchant for computer games, sadly), but I do know that Will Wright, the game's designer, has been much influenced by Christopher Alexander and his "Pattern Language" (Alexander also seems to appeal bigtime to alt-computer programmers) ...

An eensie bit about that here:


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2009 3:57 PM

I also remember there being a "Recommended Reading" section in the SimCity manual. It's how I first became aware of Jacobs's "Death and Life". And I'll bet Alexander was on that list, too.

Posted by: Bryan on April 11, 2009 8:39 PM

Malls: I would like to know how the growth of online shopping has affected growth of sales at malls. My own experience is that my mall visits have dropped about an order of magnitude since most of my shopping is now online. Better selection, better prices, easier price comparison, and I can shop late at night or early in the morning when malls are closed.

Posted by: Randall Parker on April 11, 2009 10:51 PM

No malls whatever in 2008 and 2007? The current crunch hadn't started in 2007.

So I doubt that. I've seen enough new retail construction around Chicago to believe that at least one new mall was built somewhere.

However, I don't believe the 19 malls/year figure either. That's nowhere near enough to cover all the construction that I saw in the 90s. So maybe that source is talking about big malls only.

As for American architecture: Mizner and Burnham of course - but how about Adler, Sullivan, Stanford White, Morris Lapidus, John Portman, Edward Stone, Saarinen - and to recognize their unarguable significance, the leading Modernists - Johnson, Pei, van der Rohe (who did most of his real work in the U.S.)?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 13, 2009 12:28 AM

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