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PBS’ ‘10 Buildings’ Is Too Long a List

You can’t fault the producers of 10 Buildings That Changed America for their selections, which are canonical. But it’s clear from the outset of the hour-long PBS architecture special, which will be broadcast tomorrow evening, that 10 is too many to cover in any meaningful way, and the whole project falls prey to the allure of the arbitrary list. When asked why 10 buildings, one producer said: “People love lists.”

They might love architectural history lessons, too, if they were done with more substance. The saddest thing about this well-meaning project is that it sets the bar so low, assumes so little knowledge of the field and offers only minimal corrective to the presumed state of complete architectural illiteracy. If public television executives are right in their assumptions about the general state of architectural knowledge in America, there must be despair (and perhaps shame) in the offices of organizations such as the American Institute of Architects.

Thomas Jefferson’s design for the State Capitol building in Richmond, Va. opens the tour. The design, we are told, was based on a famous Roman precedent, the Maison Carree in Nimes, France, although little is said about how Jefferson adapted a temple design for government use. Jefferson is an easy and obvious person to start with, if the parameters are tightly drawn to exclude colonial architecture and all important civic buildings that pre-date the American Revolution. With Jefferson, architecture dovetails neatly with ideas and political ideology, and he left a paper trail, which helps if one wants to dig into the drama of how buildings come to look the way they do. It is interesting to learn that the dramatic front steps that now lead to the classical portico weren’t added until long after Jefferson’s death . . . but onto the next thing.

Which is almost a century later: Henry Hobson Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston’s Back Bay. This was, we are told, something entirely new and, of course, very American. Never mind Richardson’s other early works and their painfully obvious debt to European architecture, which is only glancingly acknowledged.

And so it goes, never glib enough to be untrustworthy but always overselling its points a little too much. After Richardson’s sturdy take on Romanesque style, next up is Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in St. Louis, then Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, Albert Kahn’s industrial work for Henry Ford in Highland Park, Mich., Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center shopping mall in Minnesota, the Seagram Building in New York, Eero Saarinen’s Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, Robert Venturi’s postmodern house for his mother in Philadelphia and finally, Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. With this much condensation comes the obvious illusion: that style develops neatly as a series of singular bold statements in argument with earlier bold statements, as if aesthetic history is a chess game in 10 moves.

Both Venturi (“I wasn’t trying to be postmodern.”) and Gehry (“All I did was tweak the corner.”) are interviewed for the show, and their presence is welcome. But we hear too little from them. To their credit, the producers are candid about the darker side of some of these buildings: the use of slave labor to build the Virginia capitol, the frustrations of the left-wing Gruen as his architectural idealism was co-opted by capitalism. But not always. No mention is made of how locals mostly loathe the moving lounges at Saarinen’s Dulles Airport.

Just as any one examination threatens to become interesting, the focus shifts. A map on screen and some slick graphics emphasize the scattershot approach, the short attention span, the nervous avoidance of substance. Even the scholars and critics who give us sound bites sound hypercaffeinated, as if they’re terrified the public will lose interest.

The most egregious thing left inadequately addressed is the promise offered in the title: how these buildings changed America. We learn a certain amount about how they changed architecture, and in the case of Gruen’s shopping mall, we graze the subject of how architecture impacts society. But for the most part, the historical, social and economic impact of these 10 buildings isn’t addressed. Because, of course, there isn’t time.

“10 Buildings That Changed America” (one hour) premieres Sunday on PBS stations. Check local listings for specific times.