From the earliest arrival of European pilgrims and continuing today, the American built environment is uniquely identifiable from other parts of the world. This “melting pot” of ideas, traditions, beliefs and talents has created things found nowhere else on the planet…instantly recognizable as “American”. Our identity is something all nations and societies throughout history have sought to achieve.
The Roman architect Vitruvius (ca. 80-15BC) elaborated in his The Ten Books on Architecture the effort to combine functionality, constructability and aesthetics as one attempts to shape the environment. 1500 years later, Andrea Palladio published his own reconstruction of ancient Roman buildings called The Four Books on Architecture. Both Vitruvius and Palladio admired the distinct variations of Greek, Roman and Egyptian design which combined the characteristics of beauty found in nature and in the human body – geometry, measure (scale) and proportion.
The design process seeks to create order in the midst of chaos. “Order” is consequently the essence of the ancient language we now call “Classicism”. Within the classical language, there are five so-called “Orders” – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite. According to Andrea Palladio: “They must be distributed in buildings with the strongest at the lowest point because it will be the most capable of carrying the load and the building will have a firmer base; so the Doric will always be placed under the Ionic, the Ionic under the Corinthian, and the Corinthian under the Composite.”
Fast forward three centuries…to ca. 1800 and the life of Thomas Jefferson who said “Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements”. He studied Palladio in an effort to create a style that was distinctly and uniquely American. Jefferson’s fascination, study and influence began on his farm at Monticello but extended beyond to the University of Virginia, the Virginia State Capitol, and the Federal City in Washington, DC. Through the use of principles and tools of Classicism, the ‘Jeffersonian’ style began a prototypical identity. And two hundred years later, Jefferson’s home (Monticello) is the only American house on the United Nations’ list of World Heritage Sites. Architectural historian Fiske Kimball proclaimed Founding Father Thomas Jefferson the “father of our national architecture”.
Monticello is an extraordinary residence, yet perhaps no other building in America is so instantly recognized throughout the world as the domed United States Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Constantly altered and improved during its 200+ year history by multiple administrations and various architects, the gleaming white dome is an icon of America and its ideals of personal liberty, freedom, independence and self-government by the people.
I believe architecture is symbolic of a culture, as did Jefferson and other Founders. They wanted a new style to embody all that was fresh and admirable about the New World. But architecture must also serve its utilitarian purposes. Each of these United States is shaped by the political forces of men and women, but also by technology and climate. Unique to the nations and societies on earth, the liberty and freedoms available to all citizens of America have directly led to the American built environment. . .
a “place” distinguished from all others… a “way” that’s uniquely American.
- The Ten Books on Architecture, the only surviving major book on architecture from classical antiquity.
- The Four Books of Architecture, a treatise on architecture by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580).
- personal trips to Chicago, Annapolis and Monticello.
D. Tracy Ward, Architect
Originally prepared 2013 – Reedited & Uploaded January 2018 – DTW’s Blog #0006
Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2018 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC. God bless America! Treasure Liberty always and pass it on! President Herbert Hoover, October 18, 1931: “This great complex, which we call American life, is builded and can alone survive upon the translation into individual action of that fundamental philosophy announced by the Savior nineteen centuries ago…” (read Mark 12:30-31)