The Old and the New… and the New Again
North American Architecture
Architecture is among the most prevalent and public of all artistic disciplines. By simply walking through a neighbourhood, an array of architectural styles can often be seen, and yet the artistry and historical significance of these designs often falls on blind eyes.
In this piece we will explore the many varied styles and characteristics of early North American architecture and familiarize ourselves with how this history has influenced the form and function of the modern architectural landscape.
Before European settlers arrived in North America, those indigenous to the continent lived in functional dwellings built from the natural materials that were accessible to them including wood, bark, leaves, grass, reeds, earth, clay, stone, hide, bone, and even ice and snow. Using the resources given to them by the land where they lived, they engineered ways of constructing them into shelter forms. Sticks could be bent into tensile, dome-shaped frames and woven with thatched grass, reeds, and bark to make small hut-like structures and in some cases larger multi-family dwellings. Logs could be lashed together to form larger frames and walling material like planks, logs, clay and earth could be used to fill the gaps. In the plains, animal hides could be draped over sticks to build tent-like teepees, easy to put up and take down for those nomadic groups that were always on the move. In the far north, ice blocks could be made and stacked into dome-shaped igloos, and in the south adobe mud bricks were fashioned into structures with flat roofs, stepped levels, and rounded edges.
These feats of early engineering are among the earliest examples of how humans transformed the North American landscape, but little of their influence can be seen in the architecture of today. The earliest styles with which modern structures share obvious derivative properties came to America with colonial settlers.
The architecture that was brought to the continent by the earliest settlers was diverse in its many varied styles. Settlers of many nationalities, including Spanish, English, Scottish, Irish, German, Dutch, Swedish, and French, brought with them the architectural principles prevalent in their homeland.
Spanish settlers built with the impressive fine detail of the baroque Spanish style throughout the states of Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. From England came structures made from wooden siding set over powerful oak frames. Dutch settlers in what was then called New Netherland – now the east coast of the united states including New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Connecticut – built with more stone and brick and often used a gambrel roof, sometimes known as a Dutch roof or a barn roof. This is the sort of roof you might associate with a barn, a symmetrical, almost dome-shaped roof with two slopes on each side. The Swedish built what is now considered the classic American-style log cabins along the Delaware river, and French settlers in both Canada and Louisiana built log cabins of a different sort, using a heavy timber frame of logs set vertically on a sill, called poteaux-sur-sol, or sunk into earth, called poteaux-en-terre. To fill the gaps between the logs they used either pierrotage, which was a mixture of lime mortar clay and small stones, or bousillage, which was a mixture of mud, moss, and animal hair, writes Lester Walker in American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home.
In the larger context of architectural history, these very early colonial styles can be considered rudimentary in terms of their function and their form. The first truly architecture-inspired style of this period was the Georgian style, employed first by English settlers in Pennsylvania and named for the first four kings of the House of Hanover, King George I, II, II, and IV. This style was highly variable in its aesthetic properties, but a few qualities are key to the Georgian category. Built on Greek and Roman principles resurrected during the Italian Renaissance, symmetry and proportion were fundamental. The Georgian style was the most prevalent style in North America for 100 years, throughout the 18th century.
In the second half of the 18th century, the Georgian style evolved into what we now call neoclassical. Stylistically, neoclassical architecture was a deliberate shift away from the more ornamental aspects of earlier work. Emphasis was placed on classical era aesthetics such as simplicity of geometrical form, dramatic use of pilasters and grandeur of scale. An example of neoclassical architecture that still stands today is the White House in Washington, DC.
The neoclassical resurrection of long abandoned aesthetics paved the way for the next wave of architectural change. The 19th century was characterized by romantic revivals where even more architectural styles from antiquity rose to popularity. The Gothic style was popular in England during the 13th and 14th centuries, or the Middle Ages. Its 18th century revival in North America brought the style back into the public consciousness and it has gained familiarity as the style of many cathedrals and churches built in that era – with their ribbed vaulted ceilings, flying buttresses, pointed arches, and steep sloping rooftops. The Parliament buildings in Ottawa, Canada are an example of this style.
Egyptian revivalism brought to North America the strange and beautiful motifs and architectural styles of ancient Egypt. After Napoleon’s conquest in Egypt there was a burgeoning interest in Egyptian history and culture throughout Europe and North America. Architects began designing structures with papyrus-stalk columns, which are cylindrical pillars that taper inward as they rise but flower out at the top and are often carved into the shape of a papyrus flower. Obelisks, and even ornamental detailing directly based on ancient Egyptian art, also made their way into the architecture of the time. An example of Egyptian revival architecture built in 1845 but still standing today is the Medical College of Virginia.
By the late 19th century, a revival of the Baroque style began to materialize, characterized by bold takes on volume and void, elegant grandeur, and drama in form. Baroque-style buildings often contained immense colonnades and domed rooms designed with an eye to chiaroscuro – the interplay between light and shadow. Key to the classical baroque style was movement, but bringing movement to an art as static as architecture posed a challenge. The solution can be seen in the ellipses and curves throughout classical baroque architecture such as curving walls, grand spiralling staircases, and domed rooms. Architecture from the baroque revivalist period maintained these ideals but applied them more conservatively. A standing example of baroque revivalist architecture from the 19th century is the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and for comparison, a rather extravagant example from the 17th century is St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
The 20th century gave rise to a style known as modern architecture. This shift was brought on by the development of new construction technologies that gave builders the ability to use materials like steel, glass and concrete. Accompanying the new style was a new functionalist philosophy that rejected long-standing architectural staples like ornament and adherence to historical precedence. The paradigm of architecture was undergoing a major ideological shift toward the idea that a building’s aesthetic form must adhere to its function and the materials of which it is made, rather than the other way round which had been the idea behind much of the architecture throughout history. This idea was most concisely stated by one of the modern period’s most notable architects Louis Sullivan when he said, “Form follows function.”
Another titan of 20th century architecture was American Frank Lloyd Wright, remembered for having built some of the most beautiful structures in the entire historical portfolio of American architecture. Possibly the most iconic of these is known as Fallingwater. A weekend home in Pennsylvania built for the owner of Kaufmann’s Department store in 1935, it sits partially above a waterfall and was designated a historical landmark in 1966. Time magazine called it Wright’s most beautiful work and the American Institute of Architects called it the “Best All-Time Work of American Architecture.”
Evolving alongside these new perspectives were new advanced construction technologies and soon giant steel super-structures became a possibility. Early skyscrapers were first seen in Chicago and New York City at the end of the 19th century. They were fireproofed iron-framed structures with deep foundations often standing a dozen stories high, with the Chicago masonic temple and the New York City Flatiron building standing more than 20 stories high, two of the tallest of the time of their construction.
When the Eiffel Tower was built in France, it met severe opposition from the artistic community who thought a giant structure of bolted sheet metal was aesthetically incongruous with the architectural beauty of Paris, that it would cast a ghastly shadow over the elegant Notre Dame and the Louvre. In America, the public reaction was generally positive. The era of modernist architecture brought with it a significant change in the American landscape. Ornamental detail and nostalgia for the classical era gave way to an emphasis on practicality and functional design. This construct lived throughout the 20th century until the novelty of the industrial age faded and in its place grew a new post-modern ideal.
Postmodern architecture was born in the 1960s, and sought to inject colour, whimsy, asymmetry, and fragmentary forms back into the austerity and formality of the modern architecture of the day.
Contemporary architecture is the architecture of the present day and, as may be observed by a stroll through any number of North American towns or cities, it is extremely diverse and employs a healthy mix of stylistic components both new and old. Some of the most impressive feats of contemporary architecture can be seen in modern superstructures that seem to defy physics with their twisting, their bending, and their surrealist forms. These structures can engender a sense of pride in human ingenuity when we see them, and they have become far removed from the modernist principle of form following function.
So much about the history of humanity can be seen in its architecture, from the evolution of technology to the slow transformation of principles and human values. As the world moves forward, the awe-inspiring architectural structures we build will follow us like a trail of breadcrumbs through history.