Blast from the past: America’s got architecture!

The Bellagio, in Las Vegas. (commons.wikimedia.org)

The Bellagio, in Las Vegas. (commons.wikimedia.org)

In my weekly column, called “Architecture critic, heal thyself!” and posted this morning, I referred to the elephant in architecture’s living room. That is the fact that most Americans prefer traditional to modern architecture. Among other evidence for this is the survey taken by the American Institute of Architecture to commemorate its 150th anniversary, in 2007. Even though the survey was double-blind, in that average Americans got to choose buildings only from a master list already selected by members of the AIA, the favorite buildings were still overwhelmingly traditional and classical.

Here, courtesy of The Providence Journal, is that column:

America’s favorite architecture
DAVID BRUSSAT
The Providence Journal

March 1, 2007

IT’S OFFICIAL! Americans prefer traditional architecture to modern architecture. This should surprise nobody, not even architects, but it’s nice to have the obvious confirmed by science.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects hired the Harris pollsters to ask a random sample of AIA members to nominate up to 20 of their favorite works of American architecture. Of those nominated by 2,448 members, 247 works got six or more votes. Of these, randomly selected sets of 78 photos were shown to 1,804 members of the public, who ranked each from 1 to 5, and winnowed them down to 150 “favorites.”

The top 10 favorites were: 1) The Empire State Building. 2) The White House. 3) The Washington National Cathedral. 4) The Jefferson Memorial. 5) The Golden Gate Bridge. 6) The Lincoln Memorial. 7) The U.S. Capitol. 8) The Biltmore Estate, in Ashville, N.C. 9) The Chrysler Building. 10) The Vietnam War Memorial.

Since the poll results were published on Feb. 7, leading architects, predominantly modernists, have expressed outrage. Some of their favorites didn’t even make it onto the list, such as the Seagram Building and Lever House, or Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Even more galling was that all of the existing modernist buildings on the list were beaten out by, of all places, the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas, which came in at No. 22.

” ‘The Bellagio – I can’t believe it,’ bellows Edward Feiner.” So writes The Wall Street Journal’s Alex Frangos (“In the Eye of the Beholder: Public, Designers at Odds on What’s a Beautiful Building,” Feb. 7). Frangos caught Feiner, the former chief architect of the federal government, with his modernist pants down. His outrage was predictable: The Bellagio is new classicism, which modernists hate. The only modernist structures to beat the Bellagio were the former World Trade Center (No. 19), for sentimental reasons, and two tourist attractions, the Vietnam War Memorial and the St. Louis Gateway Arch (No. 14). The top “modern-looking building of recent vintage,” as Frangos puts it, was the 1998 Rose Center, of the National Museum of Natural History, in New York, which ranked No. 33. Almost as galling to those galled by the inclusion of the Bellagio must be the Ronald Reagan Building, a neo-classicist federal office building also completed in 1998. It placed No. 79, just ahead of the Philips Exeter Academy Library, by modernist Louis Kahn. No buildings by the pioneer of the glass box, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, made the list. Perfecto!

The National Gallery of Art’s West Building, in Washington, designed by John Russell Pope and finished in 1941, made the list (No. 34). I.M. Pei’s ultramodernist East Wing, finished in 1978, did not. And while Monticello made No. 27, Jefferson’s University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, failed, alas, to make the list.

Two of my favorites, the New York Yacht Club and the Old Executive Office Building (the ornate neoclassical pile next to the White House), failed to make the list. New York, Washington and Chicago had the most buildings on the list. Boston had Trinity Church (25), Faneuil Hall (64), Boston Public Library (90; the original, not Philip Johnson’s 1972 addition) and the Hancock Tower (142). No buildings in Providence made the list, although at least half a dozen of our old buildings are superior to all of the modernist buildings that did make the list.

The list of favorites has been widely criticized as a “Greatest Hits,” based on popularity, not architectural quality. “A classic case of denial,” said classical architect Dino Marcantonio in one online debate about the poll (tradarch.list.serv). If popularity alone were key, then how did the relatively obscure Biltmore Estate outrank Monticello? Or how did the St. Regis Hotel outrank the famous Plaza Hotel? Even if popularity was in fact key, so what? As classical architect Nir Buras put it in the Tradarch debate, “The statistics still hold: People prefer/remember/recognize traditional 10 times better than modernist.”

I would say that modern architecture fared far better than it had any right to expect. By my count, 61 modernist works of architecture made it onto the list, although overwhelmingly toward the bottom. Modernists may have reason to be thankful for the curious way the poll was structured by the AIA. After all, the 1,804 members of the public got to choose only after selections by 2,448 “random” AIA members. If the public had chosen its favorites without the AIA members’ getting the first cut, no modernist buildings at all would have made the top 150.

Whether before or after he saw the results of its poll, the president of the American Institute of Architects decided to declare that it was “meant to get a dialogue going.” Good. Since the AIA has worked for decades to thwart the return of traditional design to contemporary American architecture – stacking the deck against the public’s tastes – it’s about time its members started listening.

David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board. His e-mail is dbrussat@projo.com.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Blast from the past: America’s got architecture!

  1. Pingback: Blast from the past: America’s got architecture! | Architecture Here and There | Civism and Cities

  2. Pingback: Shubow on AIA’s promo | Architecture Here and There

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