An Expert’s Opinion December 2006

Influential Architects


Anyone who has grown up in a suburban house, visited a cul-de-sac lined with ranch houses, or driven through Levittown has been touched by A. J. Downing. He was the creator of the American suburb—not its forms alone, but its philosophy. His illustrated pattern books, especially The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), created our modern image of the suburb: strongly individualized houses sitting on winding streets, picturesquely integrated with nature. At the core of Downing’s thought was a moral understanding of suburban life, and he should not be blamed for the McMansions that parody his precepts.

“Make no little plans,” urged Burnham, who heeded his own advice in his master plans for Chicago and for the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Although he built such jewels as Washington’s Union Station, his achievement is not really aesthetic. He brought to architecture, for better or worse, the values of the American business tycoon: boldness of vision, ferocious executive energy, and an itch to do things at the largest possible scale. His influence, though, has been mixed: the movement that began by creating America’s loveliest public spaces, such as Chicago’s grand Civic Center plaza, ended in the megalomania of postwar urban renewal—and the lofty, tragic hubris of Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green.

To understand American drinking habits, one does not look at Beaujolais sales but at Coke. Likewise, in seeking to understand American architecture, one does not look to such boutique designers as Frank Gehry or Robert Venturi but to the authors of our modern vernacular and its apartment houses and casinos, its highway mini-malls and kidney-shaped swimming pools. Here the most influential designer by far was Lapidus, the instigator of the great tacky hotels of South Florida, whose turquoise-tiled lobbies and giddy squiggles created the visual landscape of the postwar world, finding wit, humor, and even a kind of dignity in bad taste.

Before Wright, an American building was a platitude: a form plucked from Europe’s history, adapted to American climate, materials, and social structure, and proclaiming good taste. Wright removed the historical costume to let the indigenous factors themselves create the design directly and frankly. The result was the Prairie Style, his characteristically horizontal houses with their open plans and flowing space. Wright remains America’s greatest modernist, with his stubborn individualism and his insight that a building can be as objective as a suspension bridge and at the same time as intensely personal as a Whitman poem.

It may seem odd to list a fictional character, yet the hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead profoundly influenced American architecture by changing the public image of the architect. Before Roark, the architect was considered a mere service provider, a rather bookish sort who knew about cathedrals and dry rot. Roark, by contrast, was a leviathan of ego and will, his creativity deriving from his existential confrontation with the universe. In him was born the debased architectural culture of today, a wasteland of celebrities each cultivating his own distinctive signature style; whatever Roark’s literary legacy, his architectural one has been an unmitigated disaster.

Michael J. Lewis is a professor at Williams College and the author of American Art and Architecture.
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