Elsewhere logo

The Architecture Traveler

A Guide to 250 Key 20th Century American Buildings

By Sydney LeBlanc

W.W. Norton & Company, 265 pp, 2000, $21.95

By Carter B. Horsley

This handsome, pocket-size guide to the nation's 20th Century architectural highlights is excellent with good black-and-white photographs and brief essays on 250 important, modern, commercial and residential structures.

The book is arranged chronologically and each entry includes addresses, phone numbers, days and times the buildings are open or closed, regular tour schedules and "the possibility and mechanics of arranging personal or group tours."

The book also includes an alphabetical list of the architects cited and a geographical index.

Frank Lloyd Wright, not surprisingly, has the most buildings, 17, followed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, 10, Louis I. Kahn, 7, Frank Gehry, 7, Philip Johnson/Philip Johnson and John Burgee/Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 7, Eero Saarinen, 6, I. M. Pei/Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners, 5, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, 5, and Eliel Saarinen, Richard Meier, Charles Moore, Michael Graves, four each, and Raymond Hood, Antoine Predock, Rudolph M. Schindler, Paul Rudolph, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, R. Buckminster Fuller, D. H. Burnham and Company, and Cesar Pelli, three each, and Steven Holl, Machado & Silvetti, Cass Gilbert, Bernard R. Maybeck, James Stirling, Michael Wilford and Associates, Louis H. Sullivan, Minoru Yamasaki & Associates, Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto, RoTo, Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates, Arato Isozaki, Albert Kahn and Associates, Julia Morgan, Richard Neutra and McKim, Mead & White, two each.

"The architecture traveler is an adventurous soul, willing to plan an entire trip to see a special building; to search for half a day to find it; to linger for hours on doorsteps in hopes of being invited inside. In part, this determination reflects a disconcerting reality. Architecture is all around us, and yet it is not always easy to see. Much of the most interesting work is hidden from view, which makes our visible and possibly accessible architecture all the more attractive," wrote Sydney LeBlanc in her introduction.

Her point is well taken. It is difficult enough for the lover of architecture to see many great buildings from fine vantage points just in cities, let alone to be able to travel to the far reaches of the country to grasp the many accomplishments that are necessary to develop a good sense of the American art of architecture.

Ms. LeBlanc has "favored buildings that are accessible or that can be seen from the street," noting that some are "well preserved and obviously cherished" and "others, like Buckminster Fuller's Union Tank Car Dome in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are rusting away in virtual abandonment."

Ms. LeBlanc's outlook is optimistic:

"In the 1990s, a provocative younger generation of architects made a strong national mark. Henry Smith-Miller and Laurie Hawkinson's Corning Museum of Glass, Rick Joy's Convent Avenue Studios, FTL's Aitken Aviary, and Guthrie + Barish's WorkHouse are among the new works included here. These and others show a hopeful evolution toward an architecture that is both intellectually honest and widely appreciated. This evolution lays a remarkable groundwork for the twenty-first century: a passion for quality, a renewed dedication to materials and craftsmanship, and a desire to create a new American architecture that will capture the present and last over time."

Among the standouts are the following:


Hallidie Building, San FranciscoThe Hallidie Building, 1918, 130 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California, Willis Polk, shown at the left. "The Hallidie Building is famous for having the first true glass curtain wall in America, but it is fascinating also for its incongruous juxtaposition of trail-blazing technology with remnants from the romantic past, like the delicate, Victorian cast-iron ornamentation that decorates the transparent glass planes. The grid-paned glass wall is also noteworthy for the way it is mounted. Rather than hanging from the frame, the glass is mounted on projected brackets three feet in front of it. The glass is so clear that it is virtually invisible and it allows the structural frame to show right through. Windows pivot sideways to allow for ventilation and washing. Semicircular wrought-iron fire escapes and diagonal stairs manage to look both practical and whimsical. Offices (including the San Francisco Chapter of the AIA) fill the eight-story building, which is named for the inventor of the cable car, Andrew W. Hallidie. The office floors have been remodeled many times and little, if any, of the original details have survived. The Hallidie Building is open during regular business hours. For the best view of the façade, walk across the street to the Galleria shopping complex, where there is a four-story Palladian window overlooking the building."

Chicago Tribune BuildingThe Chicago Tribune Tower, 1927, 435 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, Howells and Hood, shown at the right. "The Skyscraper was born in Chicago, where fascination with tall buildings reached fever pitch in 1922. In that year, the Chicago Tribune announced a design competition for the newspaper's new home, symbolizing the power of the press through advanced architecture. The opportunity to design a structure of such high visibility, along with the prospect of a $50,000 prize, drew 260 entries - 100 of them from Europe….The winning entry, by John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, reflected the accepted model for skyscraper design in America - the Gothic cathedral - right up to the circle of buttresses surrounding its crown. It was a lavishly detailed historical design, but a solid and well-proportioned one. It triumphed over submissions of the most advanced European modernists, who had yet to build any skyscrapers of their own. If the American winner was traditional, the European entries presented bold skyscraper innovations. The mostly highly acclaimed design, a stepped-back tower by Eliel Saarinen of Finland, won second prize, and prompted Saarinen to move to Chicago. Walter Gropius and Adolph Meyer submitted a Bauhaus-style skyscraper….The Europeans lost the competition but won the war. Their entries marked the official transition to modern skyscraper design."

Los Angeles City Hall, 1928, 200 North Spring Street, Los Angeles, California, John C. Austin, John and Donald Parkinson, Albert C. Martin Sr. "The exuberant spirit of Los Angeles in the 1920s is captured in its symbol of civic pride, City Hall. A consortion of local architects produced this eclectic but memorable design - an Italian-style arched entry and courtyard at the street, a jazzy, stepped-back tower 28 stories tall, and a pyramid topping the roof. Inside, the central rotunda combines the classic marble grandeur of a cathedral with Hollywood 'show biz' I more or less peaceful coexistence. This civic monument became known to millions of Americans in the 1950s, when its image served to identify the setting the hit television series "Dragnet." But while gaining fame across the country during that decade, City Hall lost some of its prominence at home. A change of building code revoked the former height limitations that had ensured the prominence of City Hall has been far outstripped in size, but it nevertheless continues to outshine many of its soaring sisters. An observation deck on the 27th floor provides breathtaking views of the sprawling city. City Hall is closed for renovations until 2003." The stepped-pyramid top would be employed on the Bankers Trust skycraper in Lower Manhattan and on a luxury apartment tower on West 63rd Street in New York. Albert C. Martin would go on to a career as the pre-eminent Los Angeles architect of office towers.

PSFS Building in PhiladelphiaPhiladelphia Savings Fund Society, 1932, 12 South 12th Street at Market Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, George Howe and William Lescaze, shown at the left. "At the time of its construction, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (PSFS) was the most innovative skyscraper in the world. Its location in Philadelphia comes as something of a surprise, however, given its status as the first skyscraper built to the specifications of the European avant-garde. And in light of the depression of the late 1920s, the wonder is that this icon of modernism was built at all. The design team consisted of George Howe, a prominent traditional Philadelphia architect-turned modernist, and a young Swiss architect, William Lescaze. Together they produced a striking new kind of skyscraper, stripped of the historical allusions of the past. Howe and Lescaze's design solution, often imitated in the intervening years, consisted of a T-shaped tower set on a podium-style base. The success of this arrangement follows from the way it seems to anchor the building visually to the ground while providing a sort of launchpad from which the tower can rise. The strong vertical lines of the skyscraper are balanced by the prominent horizontally banded windows, which wrap the building at its corners. Retail stores occupy the podium base, with the central banking hall on the second level. In true International Style, the design expresses both the structural frame of the building as well as its volume. The materials are varied, but remain pure and precise: a gay, polished granite base, buff limestone for the banking office façade and for the vertical columns; and gay brick for the spandrels. Ornamentation, a big modernist taboo, is virtually eliminated, unless you count as decoration the enormous P?SFS sign that dominates the top off the tower. The architects designed all the furniture, hardware, and fixtures, because the necessary modern elements did not exist. Following a conversion by Bower Lewis Thrower, the bank building reemerged as the Loews Philadelphia Hotel in mid-2000."

Dulles International Airport, 1962, Chantilly, Virginia, Eero Saarinen. "As the gateway to America's capital city - and the country's first big jet-age airport - Dulles International called for a distinguished national monument, and Eero Saarinen clearly provided one. Surreal by day, ehtereal at night, the airport is defined by two massive rows of tapered concrete columns that reach up and out, in tautly controlled tension that gives a beautiful curve to the roof….To give special significance to the entry, the front façade rises 65 feet, versus 40 feet in back; columns are 40 feet apart on both sides, inset with walls of dark-framed glass….Saarinen correctly identified Dulles as the masterpiece of his career, which was brief but extremely influential and ended with his untimely death in 1961, before the terminal's completion. In the late 1990s, an SOM expansion nearly doubled the length of the original catenary structure."

Air Force Academy ChapelUnited States Air Force Academy Chapel, 1962, Colorado Springs, Colorado, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, shown at the right. "The United States Air Force Academy Chapel exerts a powerful spiritual precense as well as a physical one. Its gleaming aluminum wedge-shaped profile dominates flat, rectangular buildings on campus, and holds its own against the Rocky Mountain range in the background. As a religious symbol, the Chapel is remarkably because three distinct congregations - Protestant, Jewish and Catholic - worship within separate chapels. And each is consistent with the heritage of its faith. This commonality was achieved by combining two ancient religious conventions, the cathedral spire and stained glass, in a new synthesis. The sources are easy to recognize, but their combined power is mysteriously moving. Viewed from the front entrance, the Chapel's origami-like image suggests hands raised in prayer. From the side, the image changes to reveal a row of seventeen pointed aluminum spires in regimental lock step, a squadron in formation. The spires consist of 100 tetrahedrons, each 75 feet long. The spaces between the spires are filled with stained-glass strips in twenty-four colors (but no green), shaded from dark to light, which produce vivid interior hues in the daytime and intensely glowing colors at night. The stained-glass windows depict Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, described by the Chapel's designer, Walter Netsche, as 'a strong story, not sweet.'"

Marina City, ChicagoMarina City, 1964, State Street at the Chicago River, Chicago, Illinois, Bertrand Goldberg, shown at the left. "In the early 1960s, the twin towers of Chicago's Marina City administered two shocks to the American system. Most obviously, the tall, rounded cylinders with their petal-shaped balconies astonished viewers accustomed to buildings in rectilinear forms. But the mixture of uses was equally revolutionary: the towers are the focal point of a five-building city within a city where residents can live, work, park, shop, bowl, ice skate, go to the theater, or go boating - a modern urban version of living above the store. The 60-story twin towers each have 450 apartments on the top forty floors, stacked on top of twenty floors of parking. The apartments radiate out from a central core 35 feet in diameter; since walls angle out to an open horizon, residents experience the sensation of living in boundless space, just barely defined the curved railings on the semi-circular cantilevered balconies. Bertrand Goldberg's innovative design results from his explorations of the possibilities of concrete shell construction and a desire to depart from rectilinear shapes. The tubular core houses services and utilities. It also accepts about seventy percent of the weight, while a post and beam cage around the perimeter bears the remainder. The 'corn on the cob' towers share the three-acre site with two commercial buildings and a theater of the traditional straight-sided variety. A native Chicagoan, Goldberg said that a strong wind could 'blow the martini right out of your glass' in the traditional tower. For him, the curving forms were not affectations but a source of greater strength and stability in the tall towers - the tallest concrete structures in the world at the time of their construction. Goldberg trained at Harvard and at the Bauhaus in Germany; he was both an architect and an engineer. His inventive use of the concrete shell at Marina City introduced a new phase of modern architecture in America, along with an expanded vision of city living. The rectangular structure is now a Hilton Hotel."

Lake Point Tower, ChicagoLake Point Tower, 1968, 505 North Lakeshore Drive, Chicago, Illinois, Schipporeit-Heinrich Associates, shown at the right. "The first skyscraper with an undulating glass wall, lake Point Tower opened its doors as the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world. Its curved, curtain walls of bronze-tinted glass are set in a framework of bronze anodized aluminum, making it look like a sleek bronze sculpture. The tower is especially striking because of its free-standing location on the Navy Pier promontory, which projects into Lake Michigan. There is the luxury of open space all around….Lake Point Tower's architects had been students and, later, staff associates of Mies van der Rohe, who had conceived and modeled a similar concept in 1921 in Berlin. It is often remarked that Mies's basic idea was finally realized in Lake Point Tower, but it seems more realistic to view the building as a very largely original use of technology and materials available in the late 1960s….A 70-floor restaurant (currently called Cité) is open for lunch and dinner, and for breathtaking views of the city."

Marin County Civic Center, 1972, 3051 Civic Center Drive, San Rafael, California, Frank Lloyd Wright. "The Marin county Civic Center is Frank Lloyd Wright's testament to democratic government, although he was accused of being a communist for having designed it. The building was designed in 1958 but not completed until 1972. And like all of Wright's architecture, the setting was the starting point. He saw the beautiful hills north of San Francisco and knew at once that he would span them with three graceful arches. From this first insight, an amazing complex of buildings evolved in a vast horizontal stretch nearly a quarter of a mile long, tiered with arches, and resembling a Roman aqueduct. This infinite expanse actually consists of two main wings - the Administration building and the Hall of Justice, with its courts, sheriff's office, and jail. The two wings meet at the dome, a massive and elaborately ornamented structure that houses a library and conference center; a continuous skylight joins the curved roofs of the entire assemblage. Near the dome, mechanical equipment is exotically concealed in a totem-like 217-foot spire. Using simple materials, Wright has achieved an effect that is fantastic - a composition of tawny pink stucco, a blue plastic-coated roof, bright red and gold window panels, and gold anodized aluminum for the balcony rails, the entrance gate, and the rows of globes that hang from the building's extended eaves….with Marin's long skylighted atrium corridors, Wright unwittingly pioneered an idea that would become a cliché of shopping center design from coast to coast. But here, the skylights work as Wright intended, bringing light and openness to all levels of the interior. Arches open up the exterior walls all around, and balconies provide continuous mobility as outside corridors. Offices have full-height glass walls that expose them to the central atriums, fulfilling Wright's belief that the people's government should be visible and acccessible."

Transamerica Building, 1972, 600 Montgomery street, San Francisco, California, William L. Pereira and Associates. "Twenty years ago, professional critics and San Francisco residents alike were convinced that Transamerica's 835-foot pyramid with flippers would permanently devastate the city skyline. But Transamerica has had the opposite effect: its image is now so linked with San Francisco that it often appears on map and guidebook covers for the famous city by the bay. The Los Angeles firm of William L. Pereira and Associates, known for the space-age restaurant 'pods' at the Los Angeles airport, decided on a pyramid shape, and stuck to it. The base of the building is ringed with huge concrete pillars angled together like tripods in a series of open strutwork pyramids. These strong diagonals point upward, to the bronze-tinted windows set in exposed concrete walls that become increasingly narrow toward the top. And at the top, of course, there is the building's grand gesture, the once-controversial, now-landmark pinnacle. Transamerica's late-blooming success as a landmark is partly due to the comfort of familiarity, but also to a realization that its design is truly sensible: the pyramid shape admits far more space, air, and light into the area than a bulky box. These considerations add to the vitality of an already bustling scene where three distinctly different neighborhoods come together: the busy financial district, the theme-park bohemian North Beach, and colorful Chinatown. Because San Francisco is a city of hills, arresting views of Transamerica suddenly appear from unexpected vantage points. There are also arresting views from Transamerica's 27th floor observation area. It is open weekdays…."

Indeterminate Facade by SITEBest Products Showroom, 1975, Ameda Genoa Shopping Center, Kingspoint at Kleckley Street, Houston, Texas, SITE, shown at the left. "In a flat, colorless and tired part of town, The Best Products Showroom arrived flat, colorless, and a total wreck. Built as a brand new, white brick ruin, the 'Indeterminate Façade' appeared to be crumbling all around the merchandise mart it housed. An artfully devised cascade of bricks pours down onto the entrance canopy, a pile of rubble advancing toward shoppers' heads. The Indeterminate Façade was created by extending the brick veneer arbitrarily beyond the logical edge of the rooflife, resulting in the appearance of architecture arrested somewhere between construction and demolition. Like the high concept for a Hollywood movie, the Houston showroom introduced a big idea - build the ruin - which struck a surprisingly responsive chord. Once the initial shock and apocalyptic prophesies subsided, the business and artistic success was undeniable. Best erected seven more 'unbuilt' showrooms, and the mail order chain became internationally famous for its fantasy stores in the notoriously downmarket area of discount merchandising. SITE is a group of New York artists, and they approached the Best store design as conceptual art at the urban scale. Although the buildings were initially shocking, James Wines has said that this was not their purpose. Rather, their 'unfinished' state is meant as a counterpart to both over-packaging in our consumer economy and to the demand for completeness. Wines describes SITE's design process as 'de-architecturisation'; today we would call it deconstruction. In the 1970s, Best was the nation's largest catalog-showroom merchandiser. The company commissioned SITE to design a series of 'unbuilt' showrooms: the store with the gouged out sliding corner entrance in Baltimore, Maryland; the store with 'peeling brick' corners in Richmond, Virginia; the abandoned-looking, overgrown façade in Henrico, Virginia; the Ghost Parking Lot in Hamden, Connecituct, and the Inside/Outside Building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After years of success, Bell fell on hard times and the collapsing buildings seem eerily prophetic. In the 1990s, an audiovisual store moved, staving off actual demolition, but at an architectural price: pulsing neon lights now drape the façade's broken edge."

SITE's numerous projects for Best Products were certainly the most important intellectual statements in architecture in the latter half of the 20th Century and while it is true that its topsy-turvy, inside/out approach to projects would find resonance later in deconstructivist designs, they were far more important than academic dialogues about deconstruction. The SITE group, led by James Wines, shook the fundamentals of the tree of architecture and raised very important questions about the process of building, the appreciation of architecture and public understanding of architecture. Unfortunately, some architecture critics at important journalistic institutions at the time were absorbed with the niceties of a small group of New York-based architects such as Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Charles Gwathmey and John Hedjuk, among others, who were mainly building cute white houses, largely derived from concepts by Le Corbusier, for the beach crowd and those critics, by and large, ignored the shock waves, double-takes and originality of the work of SITE. SITE, which stands for Sculpture In The Environment, obviously had an abundant sense of humor, but one thoroughly grounded in artistic and urbanistic theories. It's one thing to draw unattractive houses on matchbook covers and quite another to actually find a patron to build large, startling structures. If architecture is the art of building, then a building that startles surely is an artful structure.

The Pacific Design Center, 1975, 8687 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood, California, Cesar Pelli, Gruen Associates. "The Pacific Design center is very big and very blue, prompting its nickname, 'The Blue Whale.' It is also true that the enormous home furnishings showroom broke the scale of its formerly residential neighborhood, causing the Los Angeles Times to describe the building's design as 'an attempt to hide a whale in a backyard swimming pool.' Nevertheless, since the showroom opened, it has became an architectural landmark. Cesar Pelli designed the building (now called the Blue Center) as an enormous six-story extrusion of glass, color, and form. Its blue glass walls rise up to a barrel-vaulted, partially glazed gallery at the top, which helps to streamline the building's massiveness on the outside and gives a sense of destination to the interior. The rear elevation steps back, also alleviating somewhat the enormousness of the building: 750,000 square feet encompassing over 100 million cubic feet of space. In 1988, the Blue Center was joined the Green Center showroom, which expanded the giant trade mart complex to 1.2 million square feet. In 1999, a new owner, Charles S. Cohen, asked Cesar Pelli to 'edit' the massive exterior; Area will revise the interiors. In the new plan, film companies will be joining the design-oriented firms, which will be opened to the public."

Pelli's richly colored geometric forms are abstract modernism at its best. The very sleek facades give not hint of interior activity. These are enormous, prismatic gems that appear to be extremely hard and solid. "The Blue Whale" established Pelli as a modern master and subsequently his career has been full of surprises and some disappointments and he never again achieved the purity of vision consummated here although his work at the World Financial Center at Battery Park City and the Petronas Towers certainly indicate that while he may occasionally be influenced by some trends he does work with the same formulas all the time.

New York City fared pretty well in this survey with 40 citations including the Huntington Hartford Museum on Columbus Circle that was designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1964, the LVHM Tower on 57th Street that was designed by Christian de Portzamparc in 1999. There are some omissions, of course, such as Edward Larrabee Barnes's IBM Building on 57th Street and none of John Portman's famous and spectacular atrium hotels are included, a glaring omission.

Click here to buy the book for 20 percent off its $21.95 list price from Amazon.com

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review