American Style: The History of Our Architecture

When did you last really, really study architecture around you? When you’re in a new place, do you notice the different homes and lifestyles peppering the landscape around you?

You should. After all, while other countries may be older and offer greater heritage in their architecture, America has perhaps the most varied array of building styles found anywhere in the world.

US Capitol Buildings night

Perhaps it’s Lady Liberty we should thank for this. When her plaque bearing Emma Lazarus’ words beseeched the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” they obliged — immigrants poured in from all parts of the world. Aboriginals who always lived here were soon joined by the first Brits and the migrant Mexicans, Italians, Poles, Jews, Russians, and other cultures from abroad who slowly filled, and changed, this land.

With each incoming culture came things specific only to them; food, clothes, celebrations, and yes, building styles.

Whence we came

America’s landscape was to the invading immigrants what a blank canvas is to an artist. It spoke of a country just being born, a country that hadn’t yet found its way, and a culture that hadn’t yet cemented itself.

As America grew, it wasn’t unusual to find churches that evoked old-world Italy or Greece, or rowhouses reminiscent of London. After all, their people came here and made their own stamp on the New World. You can see it everywhere, even today.

Washington capitol dome with American flag

American interpretations

From the American interpretation of “Arts and Crafts” style through to the appropriation of the Latin-American Pueblo-style adobes, to Greek Revival architecture on plantations, from reinventing the “farmhouse” through to the ever-present New York brownstone, America became the whole world’s architectural melting pot.

Upon sailing toward Ellis Island, New York’s skyscrapers filled those teeming immigrants with excitement for a land where anything was possible. If you want to find architecture with emotional impact, look no further than those towering buildings that appeared far from shore, almost promising “In America, we will reach the skies together.”

All mixed up

In today’s America, that immigrant influence is still spreading. You see it every time you pass a “fusion” food truck where they’re blending, say,  Mexican tradition with Korean influence (tacos kimchi al pastor, anyone?) or the perogie food truck near me, offering East Indian butter chicken on Poland’s classic dumpling.

“American Style,” then, is a where anything goes. If you think of the USA as an immigrant nation in which the whole is truly a sum of its parts, it’s the “melting pot” of America that allows cultures to be blended together and celebrated for what they are — a new normal.

rush hour pedestrian crossing blurred

Our upcoming American architecture series

From mansions to beach shacks, and frontier towns through to slavery’s legacy on plantations of the south, and even the rise of the suburban subdivision, we’ll be traveling all across our continent, to our territories and even our northern neighbor Canada, to take a look at different regions and styles of architecture that make this a truly spectacular part of the world in which to pay attention to the buildings you’re passing by.

We won’t just talk about architectural details, either. We’ll look at the social situations, the history, and the evolution of each of these styles in their particular space and time.

In the end, we’re hoping you’ll have greater excitement about architecture, more appreciation for the influx of culture and immigrants that has made our nation what it is today, and maybe even a broader view on just encompasses a little thing we call “American Style.”

American born and bred

Some things are truly born and bred in America — think of the Ford Mustang and Detroit’s mid-century automobile influences or a big beefy cheeseburger — but a lot of what we love is thanks to those founders over the first two centuries who came from abroad, bringing a little touch of home to a big new land.

How we live, where we live, affects us profoundly. Whether it’s the rustic life on an Alabaman river or surf’s up just outside your door in Monterey, your surroundings often influence the homes available to you.

How about you?

Do you have any thoughts on what “American Style” is? What do you love most about architecture around you? Have you any thoughts of what you’d like to see us cover?


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