150 Works of Architecture You Love to Love

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As part of its 150th anniversary celebration, the American Institute of Architects released a poll this morning that purports to identify America’s 150 favorite works of American architecture. Being as list obsessed as any other red blooded American — actually, I said that just to get the word American into this paragraph some more — I’ve been combing through it.

I was surprised at first to see that so many of the people polled knew about architects’ favorites who are less than household names, men like Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, he of the Nebraska State Capitol (67) and the Los Angeles Central Library (120). I understood better when I looked into how the list was drawn up. First the AIA interviewed around 2500 of its own members to get their choices, then whittled those nominees down to 248 buildings, bridges and monuments. After that, nearly 1800 randomly selected “civilians” were asked on line to choose from that list. They were shown pictures of the buildings they were being asked about, many of which they were probably seeing for the first time.

This is called aesthetic crowd control. Having architecture professionals make the initial cut keeps out the riff raff, like gas stations, diners shaped like decoy ducks and Colonial Williamsburg. Otherwise who knows? The Golden Arches (they don’t appear) might have been up there with the Golden Gate. (Number 5). As it is the masses still ranked the Bellagio Hotel and Casino (22) ahead of Monticello (27) and Falling Water (29). But Falling Water doesn’t have Dancing Fountains. And Monticello doesn’t have all night slots. At least not yet.

All the same, this is a very interesting list, a mix of “look good” and “feel good”. (Lots of churches, hotels and ball parks, places that give people warm feelings. The Pentagon didn’t make it.) You will not be surprised to hear that New York is the crown jewel. Thirty-two of the choices are there. Those include Number One, the beloved Empire State Building, big, romantic and beautiful, the original hunk. Plus there are two Manhattan buildings that are no longer with us, the World Trade Center (19) and Penn Station (143), both mourned but for different reasons. And one that isn’t completed, Renzo Piano’s New York Times headquarters (68). And also, for some reason, both of Manhattan’s Apple Stores, including the nothing-in-particular one in Soho (141), which somehow ranks ahead of Penn Station. Insert your theory here for that one.

Among individual architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, also no surprise, is the most frequently cited name, with eight buildings. Boston’s Henry Hobson Richardson, the 19th century master of Romanesque revival, is tied for second with six. I love his work, too, but I also suspect it’s rock solid character, those reassuringly thick walls, appeals to something in our post 9/11, it’s-all-coming-apart mentality. The man he’s tied with is another Chicagoan, Daniel Burnham, alone in in collaboration with other architects.

The ranking of work by contemporary architects is all over the place. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, the masterpiece of post-2000 American architecture, just barely breaks the top 100. (It’s 99) His no less brilliant M.I.T. Stata Center in Boston must have been too much for our voters to digest. Herzog and de Meuron are singled out for their addition to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (117) but not for their far superior De Young Museum in San Francisco. And Zaha Hadid’s Cincinnati Arts Center? Not there.

The worst omission? Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Denver Art Museum, like Gehry’s Disney Hall a building we’ll be coming to grips with for the rest of the century. As for the late Louis Kahn, the architect’s architect, he’s included for his Phillips Exeter Academy Library, a magnificent exercise, but not for his greatest work, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, maybe because it’s hard to grasp the simple solar glory of that place in a photo, which is what our voters saw.

But the most telling detail about this list? Very little of classic post-war Modernism turns up, unless it’s by Richard Meier, the fourth most frequently cited name, whose penchant for white might make him appealing even to people who don’t like severe glass and steel. But there’s nothing by Mies van der Rohe. (No Seagram Building? No Lake Shore Drive apartments?) There’s no Glass House by Philip Johnson. No Lever House either.

The message I’m getting here is that Americans are open to the new, but they still favor warm over pure, inviting over challenging. I’m a card carrying art critic, and I love the Seagram Building, but I get it. I lived in Chicago for a while. I don’t even care much about baseball, but you touch Wrigley Field (31) and I kill you. It’s as simple as that.

Here’s the top 20 choices, with locations and architects:

1. Empire State Building – New York City – William Lamb, Shreve, Lamb and Harmon
2. The White House – Washington, D.C. – James Hoban
3. Washington National Cathedral – Washington, D.C. – George F. Bodley and Henry Vaughan
4. Thomas Jefferson Memorial – Washington, D.C. – John Russell Pope
5. Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco – Irving F. Morrow and Gertrude C. Morrow
6. U.S. Capitol – Washington, D.C. – William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch, Thomas U. Walter, Montgomery C. Meigs
7. Lincoln Memorial – Washington, D.C. – Henry Bacon
8. Biltmore Estate (Vanderbilt Residence) – Asheville, N.C. – Richard Morris Hunt
9. Chrysler Building – New York City – William Van Alen
10. Vietnam Veterans Memorial – Washington, D.C. – Maya Lin with Cooper-Lecky Partnership
11. St. Patrick’s Cathedral – New York City – James Renwick
12. Washington Monument – Washington, D.C. – Robert Mills
13. Grand Central Station – New York City – Reed and Stern; Warren and Wetmore
14. The Gateway Arch – St. Louis – Eero Saarinen
15. Supreme Court of the United States – Washington, D.C. – Cass Gilbert
16. St. Regis Hotel – New York City – Trowbridge & Livingston
17. Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York City – Calvert Vaux, McKim, Mead & White, Richard Morris Hunt, Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo
18. Hotel Del Coronado – San Diego – James Reid
19. World Trade Center – New York City – Minoru Yamasaki; Antonio Brittiochi; Emery Roth & Sons
20. Brooklyn Bridge – New York City – John Augustus Roebling