Geoffrey Baer is a deceptively brilliant tour guide. He has spent decades giving tours of Chicago’s architecture, and his friendly, conversational style has made several WTTW documentaries about Chicago architecture, history, society, and food that are both scholarly and popular.
With his longtime producer Dan Protess, Baer has now developed the first national version of this documentary style. 10 Buildings That Changed America aired on PBS this week, and it is both a wonderful continuation of the Chicago documentaries and an astonishing step forward.
The continuity lies in the exhaustive research behind the show that somehow never feels exhausting. The scripts tell coherent stories about what architects such as Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, and Frank Gehry experienced as they developed their landmark buildings. The architects are people living in particular times and places, acting and reacting to significant changes around them. Sometimes their reactions produced unintended consequences, and those are discussed at length by a wonderful array of historians and critics. Architecture enthusiasts will recognize Paul Goldberger, and speaking as a historian, I was delighted to see Gwendolyn Wright, Charlie Hyde (the commentator on my first ASEH panel) and Tim Samuelson among the many interview subjects.
The step forward is in the scope and pace. Where Baer’s earlier documentaries put the greater Chicago area under the microscope, this one has a truly national scale. Arranged chronologically, the buildings tell a story of the United States, from founding father Thomas Jefferson’s visions of a new architecture for a new nation, moving coast to coast through the nineteenth century’s new churches in Boston, skyscrapers in Manhattan, Chicago, and west to St. Louis (along with the prairie architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright), the advances of the Industrial Revolution (and Fordism) and the reactions to nationalism, internationalism, postwar consumerism, and modernity in the twentieth century before finishing the journey with Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Although each of the ten segments focuses on one building, every segment shows how that one building both came from previous influences and then influenced other buildings. This is a video textbook of American architectural history, one which places the built environment squarely in the social, cultural, political, and technological history of the nation.
All this takes place in 56 minutes. The pace of 10 Buildings That Changed America is much faster than any of the earlier Baer/Protess productions with astonishingly quick editing throughout the program. Blink during the Louis Sullivan segment, and you’ll miss Baer walking alongside the Auditorium Building (complete with advertisement to enroll in Roosevelt University, the resident of Sullivan’s Michigan Avenue masterpiece since just after World War II). Blink during the segment on Robie House and you’ll miss many of the Frank Lloyd Wright houses that pepper Oak Park. (Some of these are featured on this Saturday’s annual Wright Plus architecture tour. My wife and I worked on the past two Wright Plus tours and missing this one was a lamentable result of my moving from Roosevelt University to the Pratt Institute.) The scope of these brief edits is enormous; I would not be surprised if more than one hundred buildings are included overall. If you stop to think about how many images and interview subjects are in this episode, you will be amazed at how dense it is with visual and verbal information. That is only if you stop and think, for the result never feels rushed or clausterphobic, merely conversational. The deceptively brilliant accessibility of the Baer/Protess documentaries endures.
The result is a program that any student of architecture should watch and that any student of American history ought to enjoy. The selection of these ten buildings will no doubt inspire debate, as will the producers’ online list of ten more buildings of note. I have only one criticism. I hope that a future edition of this program will include William McDonough and David Orr’s Adam J. Lewis Center at Oberlin College (2001) as a vision which has influenced environmentally-sustainable architecture not simply as a straightjacket (as Stanley Tigerman has criticized the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system), but a genuine expression of how the built and natural environments may interact. (I am biased as a former teacher in and neighbor of the building, but I have also seen its influence grow in buildings striving for passivhaus, LEED, and Living Building Challenge performance over the past decade.) The concluding montage of images in the show included a glimpse of Jeanne Gang’s Aqua Tower (2009), an example of biomimicry, but a discussion of inspired buildings designed for sustainable performance would be a fitting coda to the discussion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s attempts to build houses to suit the Midwestern prairies.
That point is my only regret about 10 Buildings That Changed America, and it is less a regret than a demand for more. Here is hoping that the audience for this impressive tour of American history leads to more national programs from Geoffrey Baer and Dan Protess.