Everyone on the internet knows the bitter disappointment of clicking on lists that sound more interesting than they turn out to be, just as enthusiasts of American history have grown weary of hearing claims about what has or hasn’t “changed America.” (Last year, comedy writer Alison Agosti elegantly smacked down both trends in one tweet.) But I have a feeling that PBS and station WTTW’s new series Ten Buildings that Changed America can pull the combination off with snappiness and insight. Hosted by Geoffrey Baer, television personality and noted enthusiast of Chicago (an American built environment if ever there was one), the show promises a look at, among other architectural windows onto the American spirit, “a state capitol that Thomas Jefferson designed to resemble a Roman temple, the home of Henry Ford’s first assembly line, the first indoor regional shopping mall,” and “an airport with a swooping concrete roof that seems to float on air.”
You can watch the debut episode of Ten Buildings that Changed America online. It begins the cross-country architectural road trip in Richmond, Virginia, where Baer visits future President Thomas Jefferson’s state capitol building. “As a founding father of the United States, Thomas Jefferson was passionate about America’s independence from Britain,” says the show’s page on the building. “He was no fan of the king of England and, by extension, no fan of the Georgian architecture that bore the kings’ name,” an inclination which got him looking toward France for inspiration. Subsequent episodes will examine other striking, innovative, influential, and oft-imitated American buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Baer’s beloved Chicago, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building in New York City, and even Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, the still-controversial new icon of the downtown Los Angeles where I type this very post.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.