Architecture and the American Dream

by Craig Whitaker

Hardcover, 1996




Clarkson Potter (1996)


We admire a building or a group of buildings because they express, however subtly, certain images and ideas we have about ourselves. In this riveting study, Craig Whitaker reinterprets the American architectural landscape as the manifest vision of our collective conscience. Asserting that the built environment is shaped largely by cultural values, Whitaker dissects American architecture by revealing its archetypes and analyzing their origins in the national psyche. The result is a superbly evocative essay on how Americans think and live, and how these spheres are combined in our architecture.          On a grand scale, Whitaker examines the ways in which our architectural eclecticism is rooted in the democratic notion of individual liberty upon which this nation was founded. From New York to St. Louis to Los Angeles and all of the towns in between, these shared values have created a landscape that at first appears chaotic but is, in fact, remarkably homogeneous. The grid plan of most American cities, he argues, connotes equality and a refusal to acknowledge the hierarchies of the past, while issues of privacy and public display permeate the orientation of our homes and streets. And the open road has been raised to the level of a cultural icon, expressing ideas unique to this country--ideas of mobility and freedom, progress and communication. By continuously peeling away the layers of meaning that  clearly signify national obsessions, Whitaker lucidly documents the way in which America has grown and developed, for better and for worse.          In a multidisciplinary fashion, drawing on art and literature, history and politics, film and advertising, he takes in the whole of American culture, high and low. Compelling and thought-provoking, Architecture and the American Dream is certain to give Americans a new perspective from which to define themselves in relation to their environment.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member pranogajec
Whitaker's book is a celebration of the "patterns of the American dream" he discerns in the urban and suburban landscape of the U.S. Despite the fact that the text is often absorbing with its perceptive comments and comparisons between American and European urban patterns, the underlying thesis of the book sits uneasily with me. Whitaker writes on page 31: "At its best, American architecture stands to one side, ennobling but not impeding the journey of the Joads who believe that 'the river, it goes right on.' In America it is not the goal that gives meaning to the path, it's the obverse. The open road is the great symbol that pulls all things and all goals, even architectural ones, into its wake." I'm not sure this is something we should so unabashedly celebrate, given the political and environmental costs (to say nothing of aesthetics and the phenomenology of space).

Near the end, after briefly describing Thomas Jefferson's UVa campus and the descent from the temple of wisdom at its peak (the library) toward the open-ended forest at its lower end, he amplifies this theme. He states, "In front of us is an entire continent--and freedom. In America that freedom has always been expressed by the open road. It is only when we finally acknowledge the power of that road in American culture, and understand that architecture's best role is as one more grand event along it, that we will be able again to produce and arrange a myriad of buildings worthy of the dream."

Whitaker ably demonstrates that handled well, "grand events" along a continuing road constitute the best of American urbanism--lower Broadway and the Midtown stretch of Fifth Avenue are among his strongest examples. Yet the fact that both are in New York, the densest American city and the one which is consistently viewed as most cosmopolitan and least "American," undercuts his argument. In New York, a civic culture of architecture over many generations helped to construct (fitfully and only partially, of course) a city that privileged architecture's role in shaping the public realm. This was a place where, against Whitaker's claim that the architect will "have to concede that cities may never hold the same shining value for Americans as they do for Europeans," architecture was directed toward the construction of an urbophiliac ethos. What Whitaker celebrates as a creative tension between mobility and place, between, in other words, the road and the city, in the long run has signaled the ravaging of the city and the apotheosizing of the road. This brings to mind the famous declaration by Frederick Jackson Turner's 1893 address at the World's Columbian Exposition that the "signifying core" of American society was the expansive continent and the drive westward. With the conquest of the continent, Whitaker celebrates the displacement of this signifying core to the "open road" and its alleged freedom.

Despite this serious objection to the thesis, this is a valuable book for the insight it gives in specific instances of urban and architectural analysis. To my mind it makes a great companion to Charles Moore and Donlyn Lyndon's Chambers for a Memory Palace, a book celebrating the phenomenology of architecture by discussing paradigmatic elements such as "axes that reach," "pilasters that temper," and "light that plays." Whitaker does a similar service for the reader (and potential designer) by identifying paradigmatic elements of American urbanism and suburbanism and explaining how they contribute to the distinctive American landscape. Unsurprisingly, most of his successful elements are "traditional" rather than modernist. One of the major modernist exceptions is the short stretch of Chapel Street in New Haven that connects the Green to the campus of Yale University, terminating in Paul Rudolph's "ferociously expressionistic" Art and Architecture Building. However, Whitaker admits that the sunken plaza of Louis Kahn's Yale Center for British Art erodes the continuous streetscape that served as foil for the modernist structures across the way and thus "unintentionally devalues" Kahn's earlier work directly across from the Center, the Yale Art Gallery. Analyses like this one and many others, including some of vernacular architecture and what he calls "unintentional urbanism," make the book valuable for both designers and those civic-minded citizens interested in reforming the American landscape. Whitaker is admirably clear of architectural biases and is able to find value in many kinds of buildings and spaces that fit his clearly articulated criteria for good urbanism. New Urbanists and other designers concerned with place-making would undoubtedly find much that is useful in this absorbing book.
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