American Architecture
Origins, History, Characteristics.

Pin it

Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor.
(1886). Arguably the most iconic
example of American art in existence.
Sculpted by the Frenchman Bartholdi,
its pedestal was designed by architect
Richard Morris Hunt. Notice the use
of Classical elements, such as Doric
columns, intended to be visible but
not so as to divert attention from
the statue itself.

For the meaning of architectural
terminology, please see:
Architecture Glossary.

American Architecture (c.1600-present)
History, Characteristics, Famous Architects


Colonial (c.1600-1720)
Georgian (c.1700-1770)
Neoclassical Architecture (c.1776-1920)
- Federal Style
- Greek Revival
Gothic Revival Architecture (c.1800-1900)
- Carpenter's Gothic
- Late Gothic
Second Empire (c.1855-80)
Skyscrapers: The Chicago School (1870-1920)
Frontier Architecture (c.1850-90s)
Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)
Art Deco Skyscrapers (c.1920-40)
Modernist Architecture (c.1925-60)
International Style
Developments During the 1940s and 1950s
Corporate Modernism
Decorative Formalism
Postmodernist Architecture (1970s-present)
History of Postmodernist Architectural Design
Deconstructivism (1980s, 1990s)

US Capitol Building, Washington.
(1792-1827) Neoclassical architecture.
The origin design by William Thornton
called for a large neoclassical building
with large wings and a dominant
dome. When still uncompleted it was
burned by the British in 1814. Latrobe
was hired to restore it, and in doing so
reworked it, especially inside.

Colonial Architecture (c.1600-1720)

The architecture used by the first settlers in North America is traditionally known as Colonial architecture. (See also: American Colonial Art.) This early architecture was as diverse as the settlers themselves, who included Spanish, English, Scots-Irish, Dutch, German, French and Swedish. Each group of immigrants brought with them the style and building practices of their mother country, adapting it to the conditions of their new homeland, as exemplified by the North European medieval Gothic design for village houses and barns. In all, there were about seven basic colonial designs, including: (1) Spanish colonial architecture - largely based on Spanish Baroque architecture - which was the earliest style to appear in America, and extended across Florida, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, from the mid-16th century onwards. (2) New England colonial architecture, characterized by oak frames and clapboard siding, and based on English models. (3) Dutch colonial architecture, which employed more stone and brick, and was based on prototypes in Flanders and Holland. (4) Swedish colonial, seen along the lower Delaware River, from which was derived the American 'log cabin' design, characterized by round logs with protruding ends. (5) Pennsylvania colonial, founded on English prototypes, which swiftly morphed into a sophisticated Georgian-type style. (6) French colonial architecture, which emerged in the northern Maritime Provinces in Canada, Quebec and the St. Lawrence Valley. The French also introduced the so-called Quebec style to their settlements around the Great Lakes and the Mississippi region. Down in the deep south, another distinctive French building style was prevalent in Louisiana and its capital New Orleans. (7) Southern colonial, typically involving brick-built structures with large projecting chimneys, which sprang up throughout Virginia and the Carolinas.



Georgian Architecture in America (c.1700-1770)

During the 18th century, up until the American Revolution, the basic architectural style (or more accurately 'styles') used in the English colonies in America was labelled Georgian, after the three English Monarchs George I, II, and III. American Georgian architecture encompassed three distinct styles: (1) The Baroque idiom of Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and his followers. (2) The Palladian style of Renaissance architecture invented by the designer Andrea Palladio (1508-80), which introduced the balanced and symmetrical features for which Georgian designs are famous. (3) The Neoclassical style - a reversion to Greek and Roman architectural principles - which came into fashion in the second half of the 18th century. See below for more details. Examples of Georgian architecture in America include: Independence Hall, Philadelphia (1745), and King's Chapel, Boston (1750). The most famous Georgian building, however, must be The White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. A Georgian mansion in the Palladian style, it was designed by the Irish-American architect James Hoban (1762-1831), who modelled it on Leinster House in Dublin and a design from the Book of Architecture (1728) by James Gibbs.

Neoclassical Architecture in America (c.1776-1920)

There were two basic variants of American Neoclassical Architecture between 1776 and 1850: (1) the Federal Style, and (2) the Greek Revival style. Both were modelled on the architectural principles invented and perfected by ancient Greek and Roman civilization, which were deemed to be the most appropriate models for the fledgling democracy of the United States. See also: Neoclassical art.

Federal Style of Neoclassicism

The term 'Federal-style architecture' describes a loose classicist style which flourished up to 1815. It is characterized by the addition of new antique features - including Greek and Byzantine elements - to the symmetrical Georgian style. Influenced by archeological discoveries uncovered at the ancient Roman sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and by the Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-92) and his influential book The Works in Architecture of Robert and James Adam (1773), the Federal style differed from Georgian architecture in its preference for fewer pilasters/columns, and plainer surfaces with less detail, usually set within panels, tablets and friezes. Other characteristics included bright interiors with large windows, and a decorative but restrained appearance. Notable American architects who produced Federal Style designs included: Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) and William Thornton (1759-1828), as well as Asher Benjamin (1773-1845), Samuel McIntire (1757-1811) and Alexander Parris (1780-1852). Examples of Federal architecture in America include: the Massachusetts State House (1798), the Old Town Hall (c.1816-17) and Hamilton Hall (1805), both in Salem, Massachusetts.

Greek Revival Style of Neoclassicism

Revivalist Greek architecture involved closer adherence to the values and stylistic models of Greek art (c.450-27 BCE). The widespread use of neoclassicism in American as well as French architecture, contributed to an association between Neoclassicism and republicanism, which flourished until the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Conversely, the 19th century Gothic Revival can be interpreted as a monachist or conservative reaction to neoclassical republicanism. Late 19th century Neoclassical architecture was an expression of the American Renaissance movement (c.1880-1918): its final phase was Beaux-Arts architecture (1885-1920), and its final public projects include the Lincoln Memorial (1922), the National Gallery in Washington DC (1937), and the American Museum of Natural History's Roosevelt Memorial (1936).

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States (1801-9) was also a fine architect. Among his architectural masterpieces was the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (1785-96). In his design of this prototype of the American public building, Jefferson used simplifications of French Neoclassicism, replacing the original Corinthian style with the more sober Ionic order, a symbolic reference to the spirit of the ancient republics. In this building he gave a clear indication of the architectural signals the young American republic intended to send.

One of Jefferson's most famous designs was for Monticello House (1769-1809) now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Based on the central-plan buildings of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80), filtered through Jefferson's interpretation of English country homes, Monticello is a monumental and elegant building. Its classical white portico with four Tuscan columns stands out sharply against the red fabric of brickwork of which the entire building is composed. A dome on the top of an octagonal drum indicates the heart of the building, an ample central hall illuminated from above by circular windows. The references to balance and symmetry and the composite articulations of columns, tympana, and trabeations skilfully emphasized by the use of the red/white colours were to become enduring terms of reference for the American classical movement.

Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820), trained in England by the innovative architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, was a leading exponent of the Greek revival style of Neoclassical architecture, and was a strong advocate of stylistic purity. In 1801 he designed the Bank of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the first example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. It was an austere building modelled on a Greek Ionic temple with porticoes around a central domed space. Latrobe's creativity extended to the smallest details of such buildings; to give one example, in presenting Corinthian capitals he replaced the classical acanthus leaves with the more American tobacco or corn leaves. In 1803, Jefferson appointed him Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States, giving him the task of directing the construction of the United States Capitol. However, the design for the Baltimore Basilica (1806–1821), the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in America, is considered to be his masterpiece. He also completed a number of houses, including: Adena in Chillicothe, Ohio, the Decatur House in Washington DC, and the Pope Villa in Lexington, Kentucky.

One of the most celebrated Greek Revival-style buildings is of course the United States Capitol Building (1792-1827). The home of Congress - the US Senate and House of Representatives - it was designed by William Thornton, Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch. Modelled on the Greek Corinthian order, the most ornate Greek style complete with slender columns decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls, its exterior is made entirely out of marble. The Statue of Freedom was erected on the top of the dome in 1863.

The leading classical followers of Latrobe included William Strickland (1788-1854), Robert Mills (1781-1855), Ithiel Town (1784-1844), Thomas Walter (1804-87) and Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-92). Strickland designed Philadelphia's Merchants' Exchange (1832-34), complete with an impressive lantern modelled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece. Robert Mills designed the Patent Office and the Treasury (1836-42) in Washington DC, as well as the Washington Monument in Baltimore (1815-29), which was based on a massive Doric column, the first such structure in America. Thomas Walter collaborated on the U.S. Capitol building and was responsible for the elegant Corinthian temple design of Girard College (1833-47). Countless other public buildings across the United States continued to be modelled on Greco-Roman prototypes, well into the 20th century. Davis was one of the foremost architects of the Greek-temple house, a design exemplified by the Bowers House (1825-26) in Northampton, Massachusetts.

In 1846, Richard Morris Hunt (1827-95) - often called the Dean of American architecture - became the first American architectural student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Hunt - who is probably best known for designing the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty (1886) in New York Harbour, and for his design of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC - was instrumental in introducing Beaux-Arts architecture to America. Strongly influenced also by Renaissance art, he specialized in designing luxurious homes for wealthy clients like the Astors and the Vanderbilts, such as The Breakers, an opulent neo-Renaissance mansion built in Newport, 1892-95 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II. He also designed Biltmore Estate (1888-95), a French Renaissance-inspired complex in North Carolina, based on the Blois, Chenonceau and Chambord chateaux of the Loire. Hunt was also one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects, and was elected its president in 1888.

Another Paris graduate Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86) was noted for his Romanesque architecture inspired by Vaudremer, as exemplified by the Allegheny County Court House and Jail (1883-88). Charles Follen McKim (1847-1909), another graduate of the Ecole 1867-70, founded the highly influential firm of architects McKim, Mead and White, along with William Rutherford Mead (1846-1928) and Stanford White (1853-1906). The firm produced a stream of classical buildings to rival anything seen since the heyday of Roman art and engineering. Examples include the Boston Public Library (1887-95), the Rhode Island State Capitol (1891-93), Columbia University, New York City (1894-98), and Pennsylvania Station, New York City (1902-11), as well as other designs showcased at the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893.

Famous 20th-century American neoclassical architects include John Russell Pope (1874-1937) (designed Jefferson Memorial, and National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC), and Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945) (designed Hartford County Building, Connecticut).

Famous Late Neoclassical Buildings

The Washington Monument (1884)
An Obelisk erected in honour of George Washington, America's first President, it was designed in 1838 by Robert Mills (1781-1855). Standing approximately 555 feet (169 metres) tall, it was finished in 1884 and opened to the public in 1888.

The Lincoln Memorial (1915–1922)
Designed by Henry Bacon (1866-1924) and constructed from marble and white limestone, it is modelled on a Doric Order Greek temple. The thirty-six columns were intended to represent the 36 states in the Union, at the time of Lincoln's death.

Jefferson Memorial (1934-43)
Designed by John Russell Pope, Otto R. Eggers and Daniel P. Higgins, and inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, the monument features a unique round dome, a circular colonnade, and Corinthian order.


Gothic Revival Architecture in America (c.1800-1900)

In part a conservative response to Neoclassicism, the Gothic Revival in the United States was not the result of deeply felt artistic, romantic or rationalist convictions and, due to a first-hand knowledge of the style, it was applied somewhat inconsistently. Based on principles of medieval Gothic architecture (1150-1375), the first recorded Gothic style building in America - a mansion called Sedgeley - was built in 1798 by the Neoclassical architect Benjamin Latrobe on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Other Gothic Revival buildings designed by Latrobe included the Bank of Philadelphia (1807-8) and Christ Church (1808), Washington DC. The style was also used occasionally by other Neoclassicists including William Strickland (Masonic Hall, Philadelphia, 1809-11), and Charles Bulfinch (Federal Street Church, Boston, 1809). The first Gothic Revival church was St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore (1807), whose designer was the French architect, Maximilien Godefroy. However, it wasn't until the 1830s when a series of simple granite churches were built across Boston (First Methodist Episcopal Church in Temple Street) that we see signs of a tangible Gothic Revival movement. Compare these ecclesistical buildings with the series of intricately carved Gothic-style timber churches (St. Peter's at Waterford) erected at roughly the same time in Pennsylvania. (See also: Gothic Art and Gothic Sculpture.)

The innovative architect of the next phase of the Gothic Revival was Richard Upjohn (1802-78) who was noted for his red sandstone church architecture, based on European 16th-century forms. Trinity Church (1839-46) in New York City, was his first major success, and was followed by numerous other churches, whose uninspiring exteriors were more than compensated for by the beautiful timber arcading and trussing of their interiors: see, for instance, the First Parish Church (1845-46) in Brunswick, Maine.

Carpenter's Gothic

The timber tradition (known colloquially as "carpenter's Gothic") was also applied to the construction of timber houses and cottages, finally superceding the undecorated colonial style of domestic timber dwellings. Indeed, in terms of numbers, this type of domestic architecture was the main occupation of Gothic Revival during the mid-19th century. Developments included the first Gothic style plantation mansion (Belmead, Powhatan County, Virginia, 1845), designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, as well as the latter's castellated Gothic and cottage designs. Meanwhile, Davis's friend, the architectural critic and theorist Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52) favoured a return to Medieval detail: his preferred version of Gothic Revival used stained glass, warhead windows, gables, embrasure towers, gargoyles, and severely sloped roofs. In 1841 he published his seminal work "A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America", which contained a long section on rural architecture. This, together with "The Architecture of Country Houses" (1850) and his essays in "The Horticulturalist" which he edited since its inception in 1846, established Downing as the arbiter of good design, at least until his untimely death in a steamboat explosion.

The Carpenter Gothic style of the mid-19th century led into the "Stick Style" of timber architecture, based on wooden rod trusswork. "Stick Style" architecture is marked by a plain simple layout. Buildings have high roofs with steep slopes and decorated gables. It was often employed in the building of train stations and schools, as well as private houses. The most decorative variants of the "Stick Style" are often referred to as Eastlake. An example of a "Stick Style" design is John N. Griswold's house in Newport, Rhode Island (1862), designed by Richard Morris Hunt. The design declined from about 1873 onwards, before evolving into the Queen Anne style in the 1890s. The Queen Anne Style had several features in common with the "Stick Style", such as overlapping roof planes, wrap-around porches, and decorative gable peaks. See below for more details.

Late Gothic Revival (1860 onwards)

Influenced by early Victorian architecture, a more serious period of Gothic Revival movement began in 1860, following the construction of St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Cathedral NYC (1858-88) by James Renwick (1818-95), who had been responsible for the controversial Neo-Norman design of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC (1848). The St. Patrick's design was a wonderful fusion of elements from Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims (France) and Cologne Cathedral (Germany), and was built from materials lighter than stone permitting a switch from flying buttresses to exterior buttresses. However, Renwick's preference for Continental prototypes (see for example restorations by the French architect Viollet-le-Duc)was in marked contrast to many other architects of the period, who used English models, in conjunction with the recommendations of the eminent art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). An example of the latter is the Alumni Hall, Union College, Schenectady, designed in 1858 and completed in 1875, by Upjohn's pupil Edward Potter (1831-1904). Others include: the National Academy of Design, NYC (1863-65), a rather brutal Venetian Gothic building designed by Peter B. Wight; and the more refined St. John's Chapel (1859) at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass., designed by William Robert Ware and his partner Henry Van Brunt (1832-1903). Other exponents of "collegiate Gothic" were Richard Morris Hunt, who produced the architectural designwork for the Yale Divinity School (1869), and Russell Sturgis (1836-1909), Wight's partner, who was the architect of a number of halls at Yale University during the period 1869-85. Other building designers from this particular phase of Gothic Revival architecture include John H. Sturgis (1834–1888) and Charles Brigham (1841-1925), responsible for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1876); Frank Furness (1839-1912), noted for his Gothic motifs on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1872-76) and the Provident Institution (1879), both in Philadelphia; H.H. Richardson (1838-86), who used Romanesque designs as a basis for his distinctive personal style of Gothic: see, for instance, Brattle Square Church, Boston (1870-72) and Trinity Church on Copley Square, Boston (c.1872-77).

As with Neoclassicism, the Gothic Revival movement lasted well into the 20th century, thanks to designers like Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) and his partners, Bertram G. Goodhue (1869-1924) and Frank W. Ferguson, who considered the style as being especially appropriate for college and university buildings. Their work is exemplified by The Graduate College (1913) and University Chapel (1929) at Princeton. Gothic Revival even extended to skyscrapers, such as the Woolworth Building in New York City (1910-13) designed by Cass Gilbert (1859-1934).

Second Empire Architecture (c.1855-80)

This style coincided with the empire of French Emperor Napoleon III, and was adopted with enthusiasm in America, notably for government buildings, institutions - like hospitals and asylums - and private houses. The most obvious characteristic of Second Empire design is the mansard roof - named after Francois Mansart (sic) (1598-1666) - one of the architectural features of the reign of Louis XIV, which had returned to fashion in mid-19th century Paris. Second Empire architecture was also characterized by dormer windows, square towers and paired columns to enhance height. Famous Second Empire buildings in America include: Old City Hall, Boston (1862-65), by Gridley James Fox Bryant and Arthur Gilman (1821-82); the Old Executive Office Building, Washington DC (1871-88), and the Old Post Office St Louis, Missouri (1873-84), both by Alfred B Mullet (1834-90); and Philadelphia City Hall (1871-1901), by John McArthur Jr (1823–1890).

Skyscrapers: The Chicago School (1870-1920)

In 1871, in one of the worst disasters in US history, the city of Chicago - then constructed almost exclusively of wood - was destroyed almost entirely by a great fire. The rebuilding of the city in stone and steel marked a revolutionary turning point in the history of architecture: in particular, the history of skyscraper construction. See: Skyscraper Architecture (1850-present).

In fact, the tall office building had already been made necessary in America by the high density of banks, offices, railroad terminals, and warehouses in small-size sections of growing cities. And following the invention of the safety elevator by Elisha Otis in 1853, pushing skywards was the only feasible option to maximize space and rental income. In addition, such buildings would provide mutual proximity for businesses to expedite communications, as well as a visible prestigious commercial emblem. The first 'skyscrapers' were designed by traditionalist architects, and offered a huge challenge to regular methods of masonry construction.

The Chicago School of architecture refers to the innovations worked out by the architects and engineers involved in the city's reconstruction. They faced certain very specific problems: the insertion of new buildings in what remained of the urban fabric; the design of structures that would be technologically trustworthy and resistant to fire; and the design of forms suitable for the functions of the new buildings, most of them for the use of service industries.

Among these architects was the park and town-planner William Le Baron Jenney (1832-1907), who had studied at the Harvard Scientific School and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He proposed a new, multistorey building - the skyscraper - in which vertical height, made possible by the invention of the elevator, increased exponentially the use of the building lot. The structure was made technically possible thanks to the use of a metal skeleton framework. For the Home Insurance Company Building (1884-5), for instance, Jenney designed a metal skeleton of cast-iron columns - wrapped in masonry - and wrought-iron beams, which carried the masonry walls and windows at each floor level. [Note: Compare Jenney's use of wrought-iron with that used in the design of the Eiffel Tower (1887-89) by Gustave Eiffel 1832-1923.] His student Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) worked out an expressive language to explore new possibilities in the design and composition of the large surfaces of the facades of commercial buildings, a category that included office buildings, company headquarters, department stores, and other similar large structures. Soon many architects were actively involved in the drive to establish a building model suitable for the evolution of the tall commercial building. Among the most important members of the Chicago school were Dankmar Adler (1844-1900) and Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), and they soon became the leaders; in twelve years of activity they made numerous buildings in which the technical-constructive and typological demands were placed side by side with the constant effort to elaborate decorative and structural elements in a new language.

Advances in industrial technologies and the use of steel frameworks allowed Sullivan to make the first skyscrapers in which the supporting skeleton was left visible; even so, he did not eliminate the decorations, which he used to emphasize the vertical-support elements, the entrances, and the outline of the lower floors of these otherwise spare and rational buildings. See, for instance, the Sullivan-designed Schlesinger & Mayer Department Store, Chicago, (1899-1904). Sullivan also worked out a method for designing skyscrapers by dividing them into three functional areas: the large ground floor access area, the attic located atop the building, and the shaft in between with an indeterminate number of floors. His buildings make plain the principles that were to revolutionize architecture, and not only American architecture, during the 20th century. His most famous building designs include those for: the Guaranty Building, Buffalo, New York (1895); the Wainwright Building, St Louis (1890-91); the Auditorium Building, Chicago (1885-89); and others.

Twentieth century skyscrapers have employed a range of differing aesthetics, designs and building materials. Some have gained prominence through their classicism; others because of their Renaissance features. Around 1920, architects developed simple cubical forms, such as the stepped ziggurat design, which was popularized in the Precisionism art of Charles Demuth (1883-1935), Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986). Famous 20th-century architects involved in American skyscraper-design include: Raymond M. Hood (1881-1934), Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), George Howe (1886-1955), William Lescaze (1896-1969), Louis Skidmore (1897-1962), Nathaniel Owings (1903-84), John Merrill (1896-1975), Timothy Pflueger (1892-1946), and Robert Venturi (b.1925), to name but a few.



Frontier Architecture (c.1850-90s)

Meanwhile, local vernacular architecture was appearing across the American West, partly because of the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave millions of Americans the chance to own their own home, and fundamentally altered the character of settlement patterns across the Great Plains and Southwest. The Act offered a modest "homestead" – typically 160 acres - free of charge, to anyone who cultivated the land for a minimum of 5 years and built a residence on the property. This incentive stimulated a pattern of isolated farmsteads across the Midwest and West, instead of the villages and small towns prevalent in the east, and most of Europe. Settlers and farmers used local materials to build their homes, including sod, logs, cobble, stone and adobe bricks. Using vernacular designs, they built log cabins in wooded areas and sod houses on the treeless plains and prairies. Further west and southwest, settlers used widely available clay to make adobe bricks and roof tiles. With the greater availability of milled wood, ranch-style dwellings became more common, along with frontier designs like Monterey Colonial architecture. In all, roughly 1.6 million homesteads, occupying 270,000,000 acres, were allocated under the Homestead Act between 1862 and 1934. See also: Folk Art.

A non-vernacular design used in wooden houses was the Queen Anne Style, which evolved from Carpenter's Gothic and Stick-Eastlake (see above). In lumber-rich areas of California, late 19th-century domestic architecture used various timber designs, including the Queen Anne style, the most famous example of which was the Carson Mansion, in Old Town Eureka on Humboldt Bay, designed by Samuel and Joseph Cather Newsom. On the east coast, Queen Anne developed into Shingle Style architecture, marked by a more relaxed rustic image. Examples include the William Watts Sherman House (1874-75) in Rhode Island, and the Mary Fiske Stoughton House (1882-83) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, both designed by H.H. Richardson; and the Newport Casino (1879–81), designed by Charles Follen McKim.

Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959)

With the emergence of Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago maintained its reputation as the creative centre of American architecture. At his birth, his mother was already convinced he would become 'the greatest American architect'. He became one of the most fecund and productive architects of the 20th century: when he died, aged ninety, he left more than 400 designs and constructed works, and with his ideas and creations he made a decisive contribution to the direction taken by architecture in North America and Europe.

His name is closely associated with the concept of 'organic architecture', essentially meaning an approach to architecture based on the creation of harmonic relationships among the parts of a building, and between the parts and the whole, that is expressed in fluid spaces in harmony with the surrounding environment, and in the use of natural materials. During the first years of his career, Wright worked on the theme of prairie houses: single-family dwellings designed in most cases for an educated and well-to-do elite in the suburbs of Chicago. These are notable for their long, horizontal volumes; they are most often built on level ground and are covered by large roofs that slope only slightly but that project. They are illuminated by continuous ribbons of windows.

In 1910, Wright's designs changed in response to a variety of influences, including Japanese art as well as the traditions of pre-Columbian art, as is evident in the block houses he built on the hills of Los Angeles over the course of the 1920s. For example, in his design of Millard House (1922-23), Pasadena, he employed a new constructive system he called textile blocks: blocks of concrete decorated with geometric motifs, joined to one another using steel attachments. The warm, dry climate of California meant Wright had to apply different ideas from those he had used in the prairie houses of Illinois, and his California designs create block buildings that are well protected from the exterior, with internal shaded patios and areas of water.

Before making his masterpiece of organic architecture, Fallingwater (1936-37), at Bear Run, Pennsylvania, Wright worked on the elaboration of urban models, presenting alternatives to the traditional American metropolis, such as Broadacre City, designed in 1934, based on the idea that each family would be given a one-acre plot of land. New archetypes began appearing in his designs around 1925, including the circle and the spiral, later destined to appear in his most famous works of the postwar period.

Fallingwater, Bear Run, Pennsylvania

In 1936, the Pittsburgh department-store owner Edgar J. Kaufmann commissioned Wright to build a holiday home on his family's vast holdings in Pennsylvania. Wright chose a woody site crossed by a stream, the course of which runs over the irregular shape of large boulders. Wright decided to place what would become the masterpiece of his organic architecture alongside the stream, on a rocky ledge directly over the falling water.

The most striking aspect of this house is its close integration with the surrounding landscape. The plants, water, and rocks enter the rooms, becoming part of the domestic setting. The house is composed of horizontal planes, supported by four central stone pillars, that extend in every direction, ending in smooth concrete projecting terraces that resemble overlapping trays. The rooms are separated from the surrounding landscape by ribbons of continuous glass. A stairway in reinforced concrete leads from the living room to the stream; a pathway through the woods leads over a small bridge to the entrance of the house. The entrance opens directly onto the living room, which occupies the entire main floor, with one terrace located directly over the stream, and another facing the mountain behind. As is common in Wright's interiors, the centre of this space is the fireplace. The living-room floor is composed of irregularly shaped slabs of stone, the walls are dressed in stone, the furniture, designed by Wright himself, is made of walnut.

The bedrooms are on the second floor; all the rooms have terraces facing different directions. The final floor, smaller in size than the others, is a study and a bedroom, both of which also give onto a terrace.

The living room, arranged around the fireplace, is the central point of the house. Large expanses of glass put the interior in close contact with the exterior woodland. Nature is also present in the interior, in the stone flooring, the wooden furniture, the natural-fibre wall covering. Nature and artifice blend in an organic construction, with every material serving a function: stone for vertical supports, reinforced concrete for horizontal planes, glass and metal, painted red, framing the openings. Wright's original design called for the concrete overhangs painted yellow ochre to be dressed in gold leaf so as to shine in the sun and reflect in the water.

Other famous prewar architectural designs by Frank Lloyd Wright include those for: the administration building of wax manufacturers S.C. Johnson & Son (1937) at Racine, Wisconsin; and Taliesin West at Paradise Valley, near Phoenix, Arizona, (begun 1938).

Art Deco Skyscrapers (c.1920-40)

By way of background to the growth of Art Deco architecture in America, the period between the end of World War I and the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929 was a period of great building development in the United States. The nation's road network and rail lines were increased, the outlying areas of urban centres grew, and skyscrapers rose to change the skylines of major cities. During these years, the European avant-garde movements used technological innovations and the new opportunities offered by new building materials in the search for suitable forms to express the spirit of the times; in the United States, however, the use of historical styles was still much in vogue. In 1922 the Chicago Tribune held a competition for the design of its new headquarters; the 263 designs submitted in response presented a wide range of styles. The first prize went to Raymond M. Hood and John Mead Howells for a neo-Gothic building with a structural framework dressed in stone and topped with a crown of spires.

The Art Deco movement gave people the images and objects that reflected their desire for speed, luxury, and modernity. Its architecture glorified the machine age and geometric forms as well as new materials and technologies. The movement's highpoint was the French government-sponsored Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (1925) in Paris, where the style was known as "Style Moderne". It spread rapidly in the United States, becoming more modernistic and streamlined during the 1930s.

Art Deco building designs were inspired by a range of different influences, from abstract art to ziggurats, as well as modern art movements like French Cubism and Italian Futurism. In contrast to the earlier fluid forms of Art Nouveau, Art Deco design incorporated geometric shapes and stepped structures. Examples of famous Art Deco skyscrapers in New York, which used steel structures dressed in granite, include: the Chrysler Building (1928-30), designed by William van Alen (1883-1954); the Empire State Building (1929-31) [then the tallest building in the world], by architects Shreve, Lamb & Harmon; McGraw-Hill Building (1929-30), by Raymond Hood; the News Building (1929-30), by Raymond Hood with John Mead Howells; Rockefeller Center (1932-39), by architects Reinhard & Hofmeister, Harrison & Macmurray, Hood & Foulihoux.

Modernist Architecture in America (c.1925-60)

A late feature of modern art in general, Modernist Architecture was the attempt to create new designs for the "modern man". It rejected all traditional styles based on older prototypes, and proposed a new type of functional design which used modern materials and construction techniques, to create a new aesthetic and sense of space. Unlike in Europe, where Modernism emerged during the first decade of the 20th-century, modernist American architecture only appeared in the mid-to-late 1920s, because America relied much more heavily on historical models than Europe, whose avant-garde art movement was altogether stronger. (See, for instance, the impact of the Armory Show of European modernism.) In addition, given the importance of urban development in the economic recovery of the United States, and the growth of numerous markets within America, it is hardly surprising that most modernist developments during the 1930s involved large commercial buildings, notably skyscrapers. In keeping with its anti-historical attitude, Modernist architecture favoured simplified forms, and only the sort of essential ornamentation that reflected the theme and structure of the building. Important architects in the history and development of the modernist movement in America, included a number of refugees from Europe, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), Walter Gropius (1883-1969) the former director of the Bauhaus Design School, and Louis Kahn (1901-74). Other important modernists included: Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra (1892-1970), Eero Saarinen (1910-61), Louis Skidmore (1897-1962), Nathaniel Owings (1903-84), John Merrill (1896-1975), Philip Johnson, I.M.Pei and Robert Venturi.

International Style

The International style of modern architecture was a particular (purist) style of modernism, which appeared in Europe during the 1920s. It received its name from the "International Exhibition of Modern Architecture" (1932), curated by the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock (1903-1987) and the architect Philip Johnson (1906-2005), which was held at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. A book was published simultaneously with the MOMA exhibit. The aim of Hitchcock and Johnson was to identify and promote a style that encapsulated modern architecture. To achieve this, they had carefully vetted all the structures showcased in the exhibition, to ensure that only those designs that met certain criteria were included. Nearly all were European buildings, designed by the likes of Jacobus Oud, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953), and Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). Only two were American buildings - the Film Guild Cinema, New York City (1929), designed by Frederick John Kiesler (1890-1965); and Lovell House, LA (1929), by Richard Neutra.

The criteria used by Hitchcock and Johnson to identify their archetypal style included the following three design rules: (1) the expression of volume rather than mass; (2) the importance of balance rather than preconceived symmetry; (3) the elimination of applied ornament. All the buildings in the exhibition observed these design rules, and were therefore presented to the show's American audience as examples of the "International Style".

The most commonly used materials used by International style architects were glass for the facade, steel for exterior support, and concrete for interior supports and floors. Furthermore, floor plans were deliberately functional and logical.

Although modernist architecture never became very popular for single-dwelling residential buildings in the United States - despite the 1930s efforts of Hood, Lescaze, Edward Stone and Neutra - it rapidly became the dominant style for skyscrapers, and for institutional and commercial buildings. (See, for instance, the Second Chicago School of architecture, led by the brilliant German-born Mies van der Rohe, one of the greatest architects to practise in America. Later, it even supplanted the traditional historical styles in schools and churches; see, for example, Eliel Saarinen's Christ Lutheran Church (1949-50) in Minneapolis. Moreover, in schools of architecture it was the only acceptable design platform until the early 1980s.

Developments During the 1940s and 1950s

The Second World War was one of the most destabilizing events of the 20th century, with important consequences also in the field of architecture. The conditions that had caused the birth of modern architecture had lost force, and architects found themselves forced to seek new solutions while at the same time heeding the importance of the architectural revolution of the 1920s. This concerned most of all the famous European architects, who reworked their language to avoid sterile imitation, but did so without betraying the principles they had matured in the prewar years, or their pre-eminent status in the industry. Gropius founded The Architects Collaborative, the members of which designed the modernistic Harvard Graduate Center (1949-50), while Mies van der Rohe became head of the architecture department at the Illinois Institute of Technology at Chicago in 1938 and designed its new campus. True, the works Gropius was responsible for in the United States, primarily schools and single-family homes, do not share the expressive intensity of his prewar designs in Germany, but Mies van der Rohe found Chicago - birthplace of the skyscraper and the steel framework - highly congenial to his style.

Corporate Modernism

On the banks of Lake Michigan, Mies van der Rohe designed his first steel-and-glass skyscrapers. With the collaboration of Philip Johnson, Mies designed one of the most influential buildings of the postwar period, New York's Seagram Building (1954-58), an impressive skyscraper whose sharp glass-and-steel silhouette became a highly imitated prototype. The thirty-eight-floor building on Park Avenue was designed for the Canadian multinational Seagram & Sons. Hailed as a masterpiece of corporate modernism, its curtain wall of bronze and glass forms a dense grid that accentuates the building's stark verticality. It is embellished by the grey-amber tint of the window glass and the green travertine dressing of the columns at the base. Mies van der Rohe's style of simple minimalism and use of steel and glass were repeated by other architects, like Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames (1907-78), whose language went through progressive evolutions.

The Seagram Building epitomized the use of modern architecture by large corporate concerns, and their search for distinctive emblems of prestige during the postwar period. The Connecticut General Life Insurance Company commissioned Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, one of the biggest firms of modern architects, to design their new Hartford headquarters (1955-57). Lever Brothers had already hired the firm to design Lever House (1952), whose park-like plaza, glass-curtain walls, and thin aluminum mullions had Mies van der Rohe's name all over them. The austere, geometric aesthetic of the General Motors Technical Center (1948-56) in Michigan, was another building that followed Miesian principles, as was the UN Headquarters Building (1947-52), designed by Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and others. Other examples of 1950s modernism include: the tower for the Aluminum Company of America at Pittsburgh (1954), designed by Harrison and Abramovitz; and the Inland Steel Building at Chicago (1955-57), designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the few to reject the rectilinear geometry of these office buildings: see, by contrast, the faceted design of his concrete and copper Price Tower (1955), Bartlesville, Oklahoma.

Decorative Formalism

During the early 1950s, in a move away from 'functionalism' towards 'formalism', modern architects became increasingly interested in the decorative qualities of different building materials and exposed structural systems. In simple terms, they began using the formal attributes of buildings for decorative, even expressive, purposes. An interesting example of this new aesthetic was Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York (1943-59), a building organized around a spiral ramp that constitutes the arrangement of the museum's display as well as the generative element of its overall design. Other American architects also used curvilinear structural geometry, as exemplified by the sports arena at Raleigh (1952-53), designed by Matthew Nowicki (1910-49), where two parabolic arches, held up by columns, and a stretched-skin roof enclose a massive space devoid of interior supports. Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport (1956-62), was another dynamic example of a monumental, single-form building, whose geometric shapes and silhouettes reflected a new formal expressiveness, whose zenith was undoubtedly the Sydney Opera House (1959-73), designed by Jorn Utzon. The more muted formalist style of Minoru Yamasaki (1912-86) is illustrated by his 1,360 foot Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, buildings 1 and 2, designed in 1965-66. Another example of formalist decoration was the John Hancock Center (1967-70), designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which made a feature of the building's X-shaped support braces, designed by Fazlur Khan (1929-82), probably the greatest skyscraper design-engineer of the 20th century. This trend of structural expressionism, dynamic monumentalism - call it what you will - remains a presence in modern architecture: witness the sleek rectangular patterns of SOM's Time Warner Center (2003-7), New York.

An interesting recipient of the Gold Medal of the American Institute of architects, in 1971, was the Estonian-born Louis Isidore Kahn (1901-74). Kahn's career followed a different course from many of those cited above. His training had taken place before the international style had taken root in the United States. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania, where he acquired the elements of classical definition following the academic tradition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts: symmetries, axiality, proper proportions, the hierarchy of parts. Contact with ancient Egyptian architecture, as well as the values of Greek and Roman designwork, had led him to fashion a personal language that used modern materials and technologies to explore and present geometric forms, often monumental, that are related to history. His most important works from the 1950s and 1960s period, include: the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven (1951-53); the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (1957-65); the Salk Institute for Biological Studies at La Jolla, in California (1959-65); and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth (1966-72), which some see as his masterpiece of these years.

Postmodernist Architecture (1970s-present)

The 1960s witnessed the beginnings of a general dissatisfaction with consequences of 20th century architecture (notably) in the United States, where its shortcomings were outlined in two influential publications: The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), by Jane Jacobs; and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), by Robert Venturi. While Jacobs criticized the souless Utopianism of the Modern movement, Venturi bemoaned the fact that because Modern structures lack any trace of historical elements, they also lack the meaningful irony and complexity with which architecture is usually enriched.

One particularly unpopular and souless form of experimental modern architecture was known as Brutalism (from the French "beton brut", meaning raw concrete), a term coined by British designers Alison and Peter Smithson to describe the geometric concrete structures, often erected in areas of social decay, by Utopian architects such as Le Corbusier (1887-1965). The basic idea behind Brutalist architecture was to encourage functional patterns of living, by eliminating all ornament and other visual distractions. The idea failed. Infamous examples of Brutalist design in North America include: Yale Art and Architecture Building (1958-63), designed by Paul Rudolph (1918-97); and Habitat '67, Montreal (1966-67) by Moshe Safdie.

What is Postmodernist Architecture?

Jacobs and Venturi were catalysts for a wave of opposition to Modernism, but they didn't invent "Postmodernism". (see also: Postmodernist Art.) The term was actually coined by the American theorist Charles Jenks in his book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (1977), which describes the architectural tendencies that sprang up in the 60s in opposition to the dominant dictates of rationalist modernism.

The point was, modern architecture had excluded traditional historic forms as well as decorative elements from its repertory. Postmodernism wanted to "rehumanize" architecture by using a mixture of styles, including features taken from classical designs as well as those from popular culture. Playful irony, plus occasional surprises, even shocks, have all been an essential part of the postmodernist approach to building design. After all, basic features of architecture, like columns, arches, and tympana, often lose their original meaning when used out of context - say, as decorative elements. Postmodernist architecture was following in the footsteps of Pop Art, whose adherents - such as Andy Warhol (1928-87), Roy Lichtenstein (1923-97) and Claes Oldenburg (b.1929) - were already rejuvenating the world of contemporary art through their use of more meaningful popular imagery.

One should note however, that a large number of postmodernist architects began their careers as modernists, and thus many features of Modernism were carried over into postmodernism, notably in the work of architects such as Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, Frank O. Gehry and Richard Meier. (Please see also: Postmodernist artists.)

History of Postmodernist Architectural Design

Postmodernism in America is generally reckoned to have begun in 1972, with the demolition of a series of 14-story slab blocks that had been erected less than 20 years earlier from designs by Minoru Yamasaki as part of the award-winning Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri (1955). In reality, it was a stark, modernist concrete structure that became a magnet for problems. Although numerous housing blocks had already been demolished in Europe, it was in St. Louis that the American postmodernist era began.

During the 1970s, Robert Venturi and his partners Denise Scott Brown (b.1931) and John Rauch (b.1930) reintroduced historical reference, wit and humanity into the designs of numerous buildings, including: Vanna Venturi House, Pennsylvania (1961-64); the Guild House Retirement Home, Philadelphia (1961-66); the Tucker House, Katonah, New York (1975); Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College (1976); and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (1996). Michael Graves (b.1934) - one of the famous "New York Five", along with Peter Eisenman (b.1932), Charles Gwathmey (1938-2009), John Hejduk (1929-2000) and Richard Meier (b.1934) - designed the Portland Public Service Building in Oregon (1980-82), and Humana Tower, Louisville, Kentucky (1986), both of which combine the mass of a regular skyscraper with historical motifs. Similar to the Piazza d'Italia, New Orleans (1975-80), and Alumni Center, University of California at Irvine (1983-85), designed by Charles Moore, these confident, upbeat structures are designed to reassure the public that their cultural identity is no longer under attack from anti-historical modern architecture.

During the 1970s and 1980s, following the example of Pop art, several American architects adopted a populist style which occasionally featured classical elements. They included Philip Johnson and John Burgee, who designed the AT&T Building, New York City (1978-84), complete with a Chippendale skyline; and Robert Stern, who used a classical Jeffersonian design for his Observatory Hill Dining Hall at the University of Virginia (1982-84), but Spanish Colonial features for his Prospect Point Office Building, La Jolla, California (1983-85).

The career of the celebrated Chinese-American architect I.M.Pei spans almost the entire range of modern architecture, including the International Style, Functionalism, Decorative Formalism and Postmodernism. His innovative use of modern materials to re-express historical themes reached a highpoint in his iconic glass pyramid (1983-88) which forms an entrance atrium at the Louvre Museum in Paris, and a low point in the unfortunate John Hancock Building, Boston (1967-76). Pei's other American projects include the Mesa Laboratory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder (1961-67); the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (1968-78); the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston (1965-79); and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland (1987-95).

Deconstructivism (1980s)

"Deconstructivism" is a particular style of postmodernist architecture that was developed in Europe and the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. It can be defined as a design attitude involving a pronounced deformation of Euclidean geometry that accords little weight to the traditional principles of proportion. Recurrent characteristics of deconstructivism are precariousness, disharmony, and irregularity. Conventional attributes of architecture are deconstructed to create apparently incoherent forms that often challenge the laws of gravity. The concept was first unveiled in 1988 at a show called "Deconstructive Architecture", organized by Philip Johnson, which was held at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition showcased the work of seven postmodernist architects, who were identified as the leading advocates of the new style, including: Frank O. Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi and the Co-op Himmelblau group.

The real pioneer of deconstructivism, however, was Frank O. Gehry (b.1929), who performed the first experiments in deconstructivist designwork in California at the end of the 1970s. These involved a series of buildings in which he combined unusual materials in apparently unstable and precarious structures. Later designs by Gehry include: the California Aerospace Museum, Los Angeles (1982-84); the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles (1988-2003); Weisman Museum, Minneapolis (1990-93); the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (1991-97); the amazing Nationale Nederlanden Building, Prague (1992-97), also known as "Fred and Ginger"; and the Experience Music Project, Seattle (1999-2000).

• For more about architectural design in the United States, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.