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Frontier Visions

[ARCHIVE] A new generation of US architects are exploring the challenging complexities of social and ecological issues and formal and material inventiveness.

First published in the AR in November 2002

Following his nine-month visit to America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted a development that was shaping the New World. ‘Individualism’ he said ‘is a novel expression to which a novel idea has birth … Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellow-creatures, and to draw apart with his family and friends.’ That individualism, first reported by de Tocqueville in Democracy in America in 1835, has persisted and flourished in ways that have not only profoundly shaped national and gobal politics but also significantly influenced patterns of patronage and the making of architecture in America.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the population of the US, fuelled by immigration, grew from 5 to 23 million. As those individuals identified by de Tocqueville aspired to be settlers so the demand- for land increased and the frontier that - boundary between occupied and unoccupied territory – was pushed westward. But even in the mid-l800s with the realization of America’s ‘manifest destiny’1 to occupy the continent from shore to shore and the subsequent increase of the population to over 281 million inhabitants today, the US remains one of the least densely  occupied countries on earth. With only two per cent of its territory classified as ‘built up’, it is distinctly different from Europe, where centuries of use have created intensively inhabited and domesticated landscapes. In many parts of the US, where there remains a strong. sense that settlement represents only the first wave of provisional occupation, land is often used profligately and buildings ·are seen as short lived, disposable commodities. The frontier mentality of moving on to fresh ground remains deeply embedded in the American psyche.

When individualism is viewed in the context of these vast, open space inhabited only sparsely by people who have now become comparatively wealthy and enthusiastically mobile, then the free standing single family house looms large. If the private house is considered by client and architect alike as a basis for individual expression and experiment, then it can sponsor design investigation and found new architectural practices – whether emphasizing the isolation of the individual in the remoteness of the Arizona desert and the Minnesota forest or projecting the identity of the aspiring, upwardly mobile immigrant into the homogeneous suburbs of Chicago.


Source: Chuck Choi

Paint Rock Camp in Wyoming by Charles Rose

Models of development

While the individual house is the single most important entree to practice for emerging architects, residential development in the US has typically adopted Levittown as its model. Produced by national house builders who churn out thousands of units per year, these designs show hardly a glancing acknowledgment of local climate and landscape and only the most superficial of nods to the notion of individual identity. Immediately after the Second World War, the Case Study House Program sought to advance new models of mass-produced housing through focused investigations of industrialization. ‘The house must’, it was announced, ‘be capable of duplication and in no sense be an “individual” performance’.2

The houses that were built in California were never put into production and ironically became identified with the individuals who designed them, but that programme and the buildings that resulted from it continue to inspire explorations of the design of innovative housing. Local leaders in Cleveland, reacting to the predictable blandness of the mass-produced private dwelling, recently used the Case Study

House Program as the basis for a design competition for young architects in the Midwest.3 Building on the success of this initiative, plans are currently being prepared to hold similar competitions in other parts of the US.

While architecture can help to build communities beyond the private house, the design of public buildings in America is a more difficult territory for young architects to negotiate. Competitions have been rare and civic buildings such as schools or libraries are typically realized through voter-approved locally levied taxes, a process that tends to favour cheapness and a preference for the familiar over the innovative. In a country where the majority of architectural practices concentrate their work in a single construction sector such as health care or education,’4 it also puts those architects with established track records in an advantageous position. However, there are signs of change. The Phoenix Public Library, designed by Will Bruder with DWL Architects and completed in 1995 (AR March 1996), is one of America’s significant new public buildings of the past decade. It is also a building that has inspired further enlightened patronage in Phoenix where other emerging architects including Wendell Burnette, Richard & Bauer and De Bartolo Architects have been commissioned to design a series of new schools and libraries. Likewise, Californians have seen the completion of several significant new schools as a result of inspired local initiatives, with projects designed by young firms such as Daly Genik, studioworks and Koning Eizenberg.

Because of its mandate in overseeing the design and construction of federal government buildings nationwide, recent moves by the General Services Administration (GSA) to develop programmes that encourage design excellence and pursue environmental agendas for selected new government buildings are significant. Under the direction of Edward Feiner, who was appointed chief architect in 1996, the GSA has now seen the completion of $5 billion-worth of courthouses that it commissioned to advance these objectives. This has introduced significant new buildings in New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities across the country. So, for example, rather than relying on conventional air conditioning, the Sandra Day O’Connor Courthouse in Phoenix, designed by Richard Meier & Partners, is enveloped by an atrium that utilizes a sophisticated passive environmental system to cool the building. Subsequent projects have been defined to advance considerations of sustainability and civic space leading to the commissioning of Morphosis to design the new GSA Headquarters in San Francisco and a courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, and Thomas Phifer to design a courthouse in Salt Lake City.

In 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiated a multi-year programme of national design competitions which is intended both to give non-profit clients access to good architectural advice at a national level and to provide opportunities for public commissions for emerging architects. The competitions during that year concentrated on modest scale public buildings including a synagogue and social centre in New Jersey; public housing and a prototype public school in Chicago; and an arts magnet high school in Dallas. This year’s competitions have focused on the design of public landscapes and infrastructure including a regional trail system in Phoenix, bridges in Washington DC, and a landscape plan for the highway linking Denver to its recently constructed international airport.


Source: Timothy Hursley

Akron Girls and Boys club by Rural Studios exemplifies an architecture of social commitments

Enlightened patronage

These current initiatives to develop buildings and infrastructure are founded in earlier examples of enlightened government patronage in the US. The dams, housing and industrial buildings constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the 1930s were identified by Reyner Banham as ‘… a piece of social and physical engineering of a scale … and profundity … difficult to match even in the Russian five -year plans’.5

However, it is fair to say that, historically, government at all levels in the US has tended to distance itself from the kind of sustained sponsorship of architecture evident in other parts of the world. Instead it has often relied on private benefactors to provide social infrastructure. For example, during the early twentieth century new public libraries were constructed across the country with funding from the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, not by the local, state or federal governments. And in moves that suggest a different reading of the individualism identified by de Tocqueville, numerous other Americans have used their personal wealth to support programmes of social philanthropy and civic building across the country.

The architectural fruits of this social commitment can be clearly seen in the work of the Rural Studio and in the patronage that has produced projects like the Camino Nuevo Academy and Paint Rock Camp. Turning from patronage to the individualism of architects, some of the most important recent work to emerge from the US has come from the offices of Frank O. Gehry in Los Angeles and Tod Williams Billie Tsien in New York. While these architects operate in many respects at opposite ends of the spectrum - Gehry’s architecture is ebullient, while that of Williams & Tsien tends towards reticence and understatement - they also share much in common. Both are pragmatists directly engaged in design as well as construction that is focused on material explorations.

Gehry’s engagement with the cutting edge of digital design and production methods has radically changed the way architects worldwide think about the basis and limits of buildable form. In contrast, Williams & Tsien have directed their energies more towards the experiential qualities of material and the reintroduction of the human imprint in industrialized building processes, investigations that have produced the Neurosciences Institute at La Jolla and, more recently, the Museum of American Folk Art in Manhattan (AR February 2002). Consideration of the work of Gehry and Williams & Tsien also raises the question of an American identity in architecture.

Throughout its history, the US has absorbed both architects and architectural ideas from across the world. Architects like Eliel Saarinen, Pietro Belluschi, Mies van der Rohe, Waiter Gropius and Marcel Breuer not only found homes in the US, but had a significant impact in shaping both its architectural discourse and its buildings. Likewise, this absorption of the foreign continues to have a significant impact on American architecture, both in the academy, and through’emerging practices such as Diller & Scofidio, Office dA, Kennedy & Violich, LO-TEK and Daly Genik. And as other commissions to design signifi cant buildings in America have been awarded to foreign architects - a list that includes Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, Herzog & de Meuron, Renzo Piano, Tadao Ando, and Rafael Moneo - so it might be assumed that their understanding of urbanism, sustainability and materials will temper America’s emphatic pragmatism and palpable enthusiasm for bigness.

The subjects of pragmatism and the enthusiasm for bigness inevitably turn attention to the most public architectural question in the US today: how and in what form to rebuild on the site of the World Trade Center? Recent public presentations of proposals for the redevelopment of the site were, as New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp noted, ‘universally  derided’.6

Public response sent the clients and developers, along with the architects they had commissioned, hurrying back to their screens to rethink with the sponsorship of the New York Times and Muschamp as curator, an exploratory alternative was put forward. ‘Thinking Big - a plan for Ground Zero and beyond’ was the result of an inspired collaboration that brought together a group of established practitioners including Richard Meier, Steven Roll and Rafael Vinoly with designers like Maya Lin and emerging architects ARO and Lindy Roy. Most importantly, this question of what to do in Manhattan has sparked a broadly based and passionate public debate and the subsequent appointment of six new international design teams to develop ideas for the World Trade Center Site.7 This ongoing debate indicates a heightened awareness that the significance of architecture in the US extends far beyond local boundaries and the realm of the individual.


1. ‘Manifest destiny’ was a term that was used by politicians in the United States in the 1840s to legitimize territorial expansion.
2. See ‘House : Case Study Cleveland’ - an invited design competition held in 2002. Nine Young architects in the Midwest were invited to revisit the goals and challenges or the Case Study House Program within the context of a twenty-first century, Midwestern , post-industrial city. Competitors were asked to design a house for one or two fictitious clients with a budget of $180 000 - the average price or a new, detached, single-family, garaged home in the area minus land acquisition costs and contingencies. The competition was organized to enable the construction of the winning project. The first prize was awarded to PLY Architecture.
3. Arts & Architecture, January 1945, p37.
4. American lnstitute of Architects Firm Survey, 2000-2002.
5. ‘Valley of the Dams’, A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham, Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1996, p204.
6. The New York Times Magazine, 8 September 2002, p46.
7. On 26 September 2002, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation announced that six teams or architects and artists from the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Japan had been invited to create new designs for the World Trade Center site in New York.

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