Television review

PBS show looks at how architecture has shaped the U.S.


McClatchy News Service

10 Buildings That Changed America is a history of something we so take for granted that you may never look at a shopping mall or a skyscraper in the same light after watching it.

Geoffrey Baer leads viewers through two centuries of American architecture, intertwining changes in our culture and our urban, and not so urban, landscape.

It starts with Thomas Jefferson’s 1788 design for the Virginia State Capital in Richmond. Baer points out that Jefferson was not the first architect to discover that distance and time can undercut his vision — the grand front steps weren’t built until after his death.

Ninety years later, Trinity Church in Boston set a style now found in many older urban cities — Richardsonian Romanesque. Created by H.H. Richardson, it had “heavy walls of rough-faced stones, round arches and massive towers,” says Baer. This style spread across the country in many public buildings in the late 1800s, including post offices.

Every wonder why so many skyscrapers are glass boxes? They followed the lead of the Seagram Building in New York, designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1958.

Baer covers the redesign of the single-family house by Frank Lloyd Wright, with his prarie style, and later by Robert Venturi, taking inspiration from children’s drawings.

If you’ve ever wondered why indoor shopping malls look cookie-cutter, check out the first one, Southdale Center in Edina, Minn. The architect, Victor Gruen, was offended by strip malls and wanted to stop suburban sprawl.

“He really envisioned malls as community centers, rather than places you go to shop,” says Tom Fisher of the University of Minnesota. Gruen was disappointed when the indoor malls took off in popularity — and created more sprawl.

The swooping roof of Dulles International Airport in Virginia, created in 1962, and the iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall created by Frank Gehry a little more than 40 years later, introduced and then re-introduced curves into architecture.

WTTW-Chicago, which produced the program, has created a companion website at with interactive features and lesson plans.

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