Whee! #3 in the series of our favorite things about our countries with Suzie and Steve, where they write about wonderful English and Scottish things (respectively) and I make up for a lack of history with capitalism and a ruthless disregard for poor people and minorities, yay! Caustic cynicism aside, I do think some lovely architecture exists in the United States, and here is my list of favorites with the following caveats: first, I know jack shit about architecture. Second, most of these are local to me, and I probably have some sentimental attachment to them, so if some amazing work of architecture in the US doesn’t appear on this list, you know why.
1. The Library of Congress (Washington, DC)
A tour of the Library of Congress was one of the first tourist things I did with Earl after realizing how many attractions in the DC area I’d neglected and taken for granted. The tour was an hour long, but it could have easily gone longer, and I would have been only too happy to keep learning.
The library, which actually comprises 4 buildings, was established when then-President John Adams signed a bill moving the capital city from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800. Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress to replace the books that were lost after the British set the Capitol building on fire (I mean REALLY, how rude!). Since then, the Library of Congress has grown into a massive edifice of scholarly study and knowledge. Everything in the building from the paintings in the ceiling to the tiles of the floor (and the creepy cherubs lining the stairs in the Great Hall) serves some kind of purpose representing a field of study, a geographical area, or even a philosophy, such as constantly seeking knowledge even as one ages.
If you have the opportunity, do go on a tour. This is my subjective opinion of course. The entire building is devoted to being a huge fucking nerd, so if that isn’t really your thing, there’s a really nice obelisk nearby.
Regretfully, this is one Washington DC museum that I haven’t set foot in. My children are too young to really absorb the visceral impact that the museum delivers, but when they’re a bit older and can appreciate the sobriety of the Holocaust, I’ll take them to see it.
Designed by James Ingo Freed, every architectural element including the materials of the building is meant to evoke a response, whether a feeling of fear or incongruity or deception or something else entirely. Many of the doorways and staircases are asymmetrical so that when you walk up or down or through them, you feel an overall sense of discomfort, that something is terribly wrong.
It’s probably all very effective on people like me (i.e., excessively art-stupid) in that everything I’m supposed to understand and feel is subconsciously communicated to me.
3. Fallingwater (Mill Run, Pennsylvania)
Frank Lloyd Wright designed this house for some rich white guy named Edgar Kaufman, Sr. in the 1930s. I haven’t actually seen this building, but I once went on a camping trip near Pittsburgh with a group of my friends and my then-boyfriend-now-ex-husband where we’d planned a trip on our last day to see Fallingwater. Only I accidentally sliced a huge gash in my hand with a Swiss Army Knife and needed to go to the hospital for stitches. The then-boyfriend-now-ex-husband wanted to see Fallingwater so badly that he got one of our other friends to drive me, since I was without a car or a license at the time.
That’s right. Fallingwater is so beautiful and stunning that rather than miss it, a man would face the wrath of a pissed off girlfriend with a slashed left hand and tetanus-shot-immobilized right arm.
4. Oriole Park at Camden Yards (Baltimore, Maryland)
When Memorial Stadium was closed, and the new stadium was built and the name “Oriole Park at Camden Yards” was revealed, I remember I felt some skepticism. Partly out of a sense of loyalty to Memorial Stadium and partly out of the mouthful that was “Oriole Park at Camden Yards”. Then I went to a game and became a believer. Despite being located in the heart of Baltimore where an old train yard used to be, Camden Yards was gorgeous. Our seats were along the first base line in the upper deck, with the B&O Warehouse right next to us and the Baltimore skyline somewhat visible in the gap past center field just behind the bullpen. The retro feel of the Warehouse juxtaposed with the modern elements of the city made the most of the best parts of Baltimore. Camden Yards would go on to inspire the design of other multi-function ballparks to be crowd-friendly and full of personality.
In my baseball-obsessed days, I read W.P. Kinsella’s The Thrill of the Grass. In the short story, a group of old baseball fans secretly replace the astroturf in a stadium after the maintenance staff has been laid off following a strike. After they finish removing the astroturf and replacing the empty space with sod, square foot by square foot, the narrator makes the following reflection:
What will the players think, as they straggle into the stadium and find the miracle we have created? The old-timers will raise their heads like ponies, as far away as the parking lot, when the thrill of the grass reaches their nostrils. And, as they dress, they’ll recall sprawling in the lush outfields of childhood, the grass as cool as a mother’s hand on a forehead.
My first visit to Camden Yards exactly crystallized that bit of sentimentality. I’ve since stopped going to Orioles games because of their owner, Peter Angelos, second among local area owners in evil acts of near-Satanic measure only to Dan Snyder, but no other ballpark has affected me in the same way.
Ok, so maybe a stretch, but until we get a Canadian or Dane/Greenlandian or Russian playing with these top 10 posts, I’m claiming igloos.
IT’S A SNOW HOUSE!!! You build snow bricks around in a spiral and end up with this dome that can support the weight of someone sitting on top. Though why would you ever sit on top when you can sit inside, insulated from the wind and cold, watching the inside melt from the warmth and then refreeze, solidifying the structural integrity of the whole thing? Simply genius. Note to self: watch Nanook of the North to learn how to build igloo.
The St. Louis arch was designed by Eero Saarinen and Hannskarl Bandel in 1947 as a monument to westward expansion thanks to Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, James Monroe, Lewis & Clark, and all those other PIE-ONEERS (I can pie-ify anything) who explored and stretched the US to its current borders. Truthfully, before scanning the wiki, the only thing I knew about the arch was the property where its height and width are equal (630 feet). Now I know the following:
– YOU CAN GO UP THE ARCH!!! As in, it’s hollow and you can take a tram to an observation deck at the top!
– You are not allowed to fly through the arch.
– Although the arch is made of stainless steel, there are spots of corrosion near the top.
– It’s the tallest monument in a state park, beating the Washington Monument by 75 feet.
The Chesapeake Bay separates the Eastern Shore from the landlubber part of Maryland. In 1952, a bridge – part cantilever bridge and part suspension bridge – was constructed so that people could go to the beach and back, and maybe some other military/commercial purposes too. At the time, it was the world’s longest over-water steel bridge. In 1973, the bridge was expanded to add another span – part arch bridge and part suspension bridge – because so many people wanted to go to the beach and traffic was terrible.
As bridges go, there are more spectacular iconic ones, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge or the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The kind of bridges you see in travel montages in movies that somehow say, “Hey, that guy is REALLY moving from one geographical area to another!” The Chesapeake Bay Bridge may not be as iconic as those bridges, but every time I head east and pass through the toll plaza, and curve over the bay and hear my children say, “Ooooooo, the ocean!”, at that precise moment I feel like I’ve left my humdrum life behind and I’m finally on vacation. Similarly when we head back west, at the moment I get back on the Bay Bridge, I finally feel like I’m headed home: the happy place where I can find Asian grocery stores and sand-free underwear.
This one was actually Earl’s idea, and I thought it was brilliant, to use his vocabulary. I wrote this really long and boring spiel about the history of the skyscraper, and 19th century this and load-bearing that and glass facade this, but it was so fucking boring that I got bored just writing it. I can hardly expect you to read it. I’ll just settle for this: American cities made skyscrapers a thing. It is thanks to the Rand McNally Building and the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building that we can have bigger, taller buildings. And maps. And Demi Lovato songs. And King Kong.
Even if the Lincoln Memorial were not so appealing to me because of its simplicity and quiet dignity, and even if Lincoln hadn’t been such an influential statesman and president, and even if the Memorial were not such a defining icon of Washington DC with its giant sitting Lincoln, its columns, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address, it would still go on my list because it was one of the places Earl and I visited on our first date. Sure, you could argue that we wouldn’t have gone to see it if not for those other things, but the fact of the matter is that the tour that I took him on ended with Abe.
Plus the architect who designed the building was named Henry Bacon, and I love bacon.
The fact that the EMP Museum is on this list should tell you how little I know about architecture. Founded by Paul Allen and designed by Frank Gehry, it sits next to other, prettier buildings like the Space Needle. Frankly, this building looks like the resulting turd if Godzilla ate Seattle, but there’s something about it that makes you want to touch that turd. Plus the way that it herds you from exhibit to exhibit celebrating and experiencing pop culture (Jimi Hendrix! Hawaiian guitars! Nirvana! Fantasy! Science Fiction!), you tend to forget that you’ve walked into mecha-innards.
Incidentally, Frank Gehry also designed the Schnabel House, owned and for sale by Jon Platt, who produced Wicked, and who sat on a plane next to me from Boston to New York, and chatted with me for 2 hours about puppets, and ex-spouses, and his house. Nice man, Jon Platt.
Architecture of Shame: Tacoma Narrows Bridge (Tacoma Strait, Washington)
I first learned about this bridge in a physics class when we were learning about amplitude and torsion. The footage is pretty amazing. It might be more appropriate to blame civil engineers than architects, but if you really want to be that nitpicky, there’s always the EMP.