The new PBS program "10 Buildings That Changed America" is nothing if not efficient.
In a single breezy hour, it moves from Thomas Jefferson to Frank Gehry, racing in a chronological blur past Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Venturi and a handful of other bold-faced architectural names along the way. Geoffrey Baer, the curious and upbeat host, sometimes has to trade nuance for forward momentum in an effort to keep up the pace.
But in the end the show is more rewarding — and even in a couple of spots more substantial — than you might guess. This is mostly because it rarely pretends to be something it's not. It makes no bones about its populist approach, or about subscribing to a canonical, Great Man theory of architectural history.
The program, in other words, achieves what it sets out to do — to explain complex battles over architectural ideas, in clear language, to a broad audience — if not much more. The talking heads who are asked to perform that sometimes tricky translation of theory to anecdote include critic Paul Goldberger, historian Gwendolyn Wright and Reed Kroloff, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan.
The featured buildings themselves tell a straightforward story about our national architecture. As Baer puts it near the end, "American architecture isn't so much a single style as it is an endless process of reinvention."
The program's writer and producer, Dan Protess, has chosen the 10 buildings with that notion at the front of his mind. The main criterion seems to have been designs that reinvented a particular building type or served as an enduring template for the architects who followed.
And so Jefferson's 1788 Virginia State Capitol building, which helped make the Greek temple front a kind of default facade for our public buildings, is followed by Henry Hobson Richardson's 1877 Trinity Church in Boston, which revived a Romanesque style while giving it a particularly muscular American spin.
An early skyscraper, Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building in St. Louis, is included for being the first building that really exploited the aesthetic potential of vertical architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago is celebrated not just as a turning point in Wright's work but for having inspired ranch-style subdivisions around the country.
Albert Kahn, a Jewish emigre architect who became a kind of house designer for the Ford Motor Co. despite Henry Ford's aggressive anti-Semitism, makes the list for his 1910 Ford Plant in Highland Park, Mich.
From there the program jumps to the postwar period, with segments on Victor Gruen's Southdale shopping mall outside Minneapolis and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building on Park Avenue in New York, a sleek and impeccably poised tower clad in bronze I-beams the color of an old penny.
After a quick stop at Eero Saarinen's 1962 Dulles Airport — "the first airport in the world built expressly for jets" — Baer meets Venturi at the 1964 Philadelphia house he designed for his mother before arriving on Bunker Hill for a tour from a game, amiable Gehry of Disney Hall.
It probably would have been impossible for the creators of the show to produce an unimpeachable or quibble-free list. For my part, I would have liked to see Albert Kahn replaced by the far more influential and consequential Louis Kahn (no relation). The lack of any green buildings — or any discussion of sustainable architecture or energy use, for that matter — is a major omission.
You could make a case for O'Hare Airport over Dulles, or for the inclusion of the Astrodome (or Fenway Park, or Camden Yards) or at least one museum.
Gehry's own house in Santa Monica has probably inspired more architects and changed the course of American culture more than Disney Hall. The West Coast probably deserves more than one selection.
But drumming up interest in that sort of parlor game is part of the producers' goal here. And it's nice, for once, to be arguing over the 10 most influential buildings in American history instead of, say, the 10 funniest cat videos on the Internet or the 10 most ridiculous things to appear on the Twitter feed of a U.S. congressman in the past week.
Those who care about architecture's place in the culture ought to count that as a mark — however faint or fleeting — of progress.
'10 Buildings That Changed America'
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
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