America’s favorite buildings

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For its 150th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects commissioned a double-blind survey of American citizens to discover their favorite American buildings. To the dismay of the AIA, which is modernist to the core, the survey confirmed what everyone already knows – that most people prefer traditional over modernist architecture. I wrote a column about the survey for the March 1, 2007, Providence Journal, where I worked until 2014. The survey has been cited in several pieces reacting to the recently leaked draft executive order that, if signed by President Trump, would encourage federal buildings to be designed in classical styles. Maybe that would improve citizens’ attitude toward their government. Anyway, here is that column, with a link to the survey.


America’s favorite architecture
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 of modernists’ outrage. 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 and planner Nir Buras put it, “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.

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,, 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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6 Responses to America’s favorite buildings

  1. Pingback: Readings on the exec. order | Architecture Here and There

  2. John says:

    One of the houses of my neighbours is a farm, a picturesque looking farm, all messy, it is still in use for farming purposes. There are all kinds of buildings randomly placed across the farm’s territory, all kinds of farming stuff lying outside, there is the natural deterioration of material, and there are big decorative pots with flowers scattered over the place. all of which makes it look rustic and as whole pleasantly picturesque.
    Next to the farm is a typical very ordinary symmetrical house, relatively newly built, with tight mowed lawns and not much green, other than the lawn. It has a considerable touch of that typical un-charming modern luxury, a mix of boring modern cleanliness, too much symmetry, too much straight lines, lack of embellishments, etc.

    In the farm lives a woman farmer, and in the boring symmetrical modern house, there lives her brother. If you’d see the house and then the brother, the brother being a rustic looking older guy, you’d be amazed of the choice of style he has made for his own house.

    Clue of the story, form appreciation is a function of the higher mind, and fully disinterested form appreciation is even more rare. Many people do not engage in form appreciation, their appreciation is based on sensual preferences and emotional attachments. For example, the simple people of the world who live in settings which would be experienced and valued by visitors as beautiful and picturesque do not value their environment as such. They do do not engage in (relatively) disinterested form appreciation which is the basis of for instance a valuation like something being labelled as ‘picturesque’. There are masses of people, both city dwellers and inhabitants of rural environments who could easily swap their environment for something more modern, functional and clean, or at the other hand be very sensually-emotionally attached to a style (though they do not perceive style in a disinterested manner). At any rate, their choice is not based on form and style based appreciation.

    Now luckily, just as modernist superficiality in architectural style has overflown the public space, in the area of philosophy, shallow democratic equality based philosophy has pushed away more profound traditional philosophy. Even a highly regarded philosopher like Roger Scruton, who recently passed away, was a thinker who, while engaging in traditional philosophy, was subjugated to the modern all ruling democratic and equality paradigm. Overall a situation in which political correctness, demanded structurally by the ruling ideology of democracy, does not allow to engage in a refined philosophy of art, let alone a critique of the capacity of disinterested form appreciation among groups of people.

    Since the architectural sphere does not contain any other then modern philosophers engaged in rather superficial and mediocre modern philosophy, lets not make the modernists among them any wiser by pointing to the fact that the taste of the public (democracies’ holy cows) might by argued to be significantly rooted in long term cultural emotional attachment, and thus subject to change. Of which then the question is, whether they could be made to become emotionally attached to modernist buildings, which I think is the case, because any caged bird can become emotionally attached to whatever cage, if it knows little else, and if long term placement has led to the creation of strong attachments.

    It is rather the function of the higher mind, when it starts to develop, to free itself from the bonds of habit and historical emotional attachment, it is only there that appreciation and enjoyment of beauty of form becomes free and intelligible, it is there where progress starts, by means of an intelligent synthesis of the old and the new. To ask the public about their taste, is to ask a type of people of whom a considerable part are per definition emotionally attached, the public has never been the force behind progress. To make them king means to halt progress, as progress has always been the product of a small amount of people, of elites. It is merely typical of democratic times, where a clique of modernist frauds and gangsters by very aggressive means have defined progress in architectural style in their own way, the democratic mass, that the general public is used to counteract the force of these modernist frauds. But the buildings in question which were selected where the products (and simulations) of the form appreciation of historical and contemporary elites. Hence to make the public king of taste is an awkward thing, with its own inherent dangers, and basically a fraudulent way of proceeding, typical for modern democracies. It cannot be anything else than a strategic pragmatic use of the typical conservatism which always is characteristic of the public, as a mass counterforce.


  3. LazyReader says:

    Visit Monaco, Istanbul, Rome and Barcelona if you want examples of excellent and immaculate architecture in hot/dry climates. What did they do?
    1: High and Narrow: They built high without scraping the sky and built narrow without causing claustrophobia. Buildings are typically 3-5 stories but never more than 10 (in ancient history what was possible for the engineering technology of the time) and the streets were narrow, thus buildings provided shade. Many buildings of public had colonnades or awnings, something that provided shade for sun drenched pedestrians

    2: Topography: Before the advent of the bulldozer and backhoe, building flat was never much for most societies less they were building whole cities. Like San Francisco’s hilly houses many desert cities have buildings that rise and fall with the terrain. Because a building on a hill with awnings is a shade lovers paradise.
    3: Interior height: When realtors advertise 9-10 foot ceiling they’re scamming you. Increase in ceiling height increase the useless air volume you have to heat and cool. Before HVAC, high ceilings where the chimney effect to dispose of air heat. Today’s plywood mcmansions are sealed tighter so they don’t breathe they heat up. It takes 19 BTU’s of energy to raise the temp of 1000 cubic feet of air one degree Fahrenheit. It take 2-3 times that to lower it (Air conditioning).
    Every inch in ceiling reduction per 1000 sq ft reduces volume by 83 cubic feet
    4: Love (and avoid) that Sun! Man: Despite thousands of years of technological progression in building, there’s no substitute for the southern facing house and the thermal mass wall. Passive solar design doesn’t involve new technology…which is why engineers in the Silicon age hate it. Orientation and shape, as well as the appropriate building materials. This resulted in many vernacular building styles in different parts of the world. In contrast, most modern buildings look the same wherever they stand.
    Ancient Greece resorted to passive solar due to acute firewood shortages as well as belief adequate sun was essential to human health. Denver did it because there was no other way to melt three feet of snow…..etc. Build your windows where the sun is horizon oriented and concealed in the afternoon.
    5: Think Fortress: Lot of desert and hot climate architecture in the ancient world by virtue of engineering technology of the day resembled fortresses…..But they served their purpose. THICK walls, some nearly a foot or more offered many perks, not just protection from cannon balls. The suns thermal energy requires almost 12 hours to be conducted through a wall 35 cm (14 in) thick. Narrow windows and louvers armored against the sun.
    6: Respect the Rock. Other than mud, Stone is humanity’s oldest building material. Two longest lasting building materials, Stone and ceramic. Regardless of environment; ages gracefully. While stone is expensive, it truly isn’t. It’s expensive to transport. But Hot places are not devoid of rock, it’s ubiquitous and using local materials in building construction usually entices the thrifty.
    7: Courtyard: air, light, privacy, security, and tranquility. Without the maintenance prone upkeep of the front and backyard


    • John says:

      “When realtors advertise 9-10 foot ceiling they’re scamming you. Increase in ceiling height increase the useless air volume you have to heat and cool.”

      The latter is energy and resource efficiency based logic.
      The aesthetic view embarks along different paths of reasoning: that what is tall is elegant, that what is high gives a pleasant sense of rising upwards, of space, of freedom, rising up even to the heavens. In short, proportions produce an aesthetic effect, which again has an effect on the mind, a spiritual effect. Would you argue that historical churches with their high ceilings and grandeur derived from tallness should be shortened for reasons of energy efficiency.., would you argue that nature should produce only short humans, so fewer resources are spent on clothing..

      Thinking only in terms of functionality and resources is typical of contemporary times and its aesthetic barbarism. That is, it is applied and forced upon common people, not when it concerns the buildings of elites, residential or institutional, which, by means of their proportions are allowed to signal power and wealth. And, as mentioned often in critiques, regardless of functionality and any practical considerations.

      So the common man is told that he should be building and living in an energy efficient manner, and use his bicycle or public transport whenever he doesn’t need a car, While the Al Gores of this world live in gigantic houses, own many houses, transport themselves by means of private planes, engage in the erection of many power signalling icons. Like historical popes and bishops, enjoying great wealth and luxury, while preaching austerity to the people…


    • John says:

      Symbolically, elites would like to lower the ceiling of common man, the majority, so that they can rise higher, using more and more ‘useless air volume’. As well today, as in historical times.


  4. LazyReaer says:

    Las Vegas is a hideous city past it’s Strip, the suburban lots that dominate the landscape are incongruous with the scenic landscape, the vinyl siding literally bleaches in the hot sun. The grass is dead, the scenic desert and oasis are bulldozed flat for parking. We actually love old Vegas motels. Unfortunately, a lot of them have become tired, ugly, and run-down over the years. Some have closed down, but their shells still linger in dilapidated condition, with their signs and marquees out front offering a retro taste of Vegas history; what little history it has left.

    But the history of Vegas in the 20th century is one of grift, corruption, murder, fraud and bizarre corporate experimentation. In a business sense it’s the ultimate idea of private enterprise and endorsement. In public terms both aesthetically and urban function, it’s a Mess. Vegas like most Sunbelt cities were built/rebuilt post WWII, thus everything is car oriented, While I have no hatred of the car, it means 35% of the city’s landscape is devoted to automotive infrastructure. Using a scale aerial photo of “Downtown” the surface area of a 100 acre area is literally one third parking.

    Good luck endorsing pedestrian-ism and outdoor activity in a city that reaches 110 degrees in summer; winter maybe. The city with wide sidewalks are too hot to foster walkability, but lots of cities have fostered solutions around that. Solar power air conditioners, perforated awnings and wider sidewalks, they got room, 10 lanes of traffic isn’t gonna get you there any faster. The major highways 10-12 lanes wide should be converted to boulevards and highways centered.

    Palm trees do not offer much shade and require too much water yet they plant them like crazy around the city and they die if not properly watered. Replace them with Acacia which is not native but is not invasive either; can offer plenty of shade (if you’ve ever been to Africa, Acacia is otherwise known as the Umbrella tree), has a rustic beauty, pretty flowers and uses less water.


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