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Liverpool John Moores University

Towards an Alternative American Dream

by Dr Rob MacDonald


Dr Rob MacDonald of the Centre for Architecture, Liverpool School of Art & Design, Liverpool John Moores University, has written this extensive review article on two recent and contrasting books on American Architecture.

Posted 17 February, 2004

American Building: The Environmental Forces that Shape it, by James Marston Fitch & William Bobenhausen. New York/Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-19-511040-4

"We live in a profound historical moment. We have created a culture of waste which cannot be sustained. Our situation is daunting and alarming, but we view it above all as an opportunity to develop models embodying higher goals and principles, including those of justice and ecological stability." William McDonough, Toward Sustainability, American Building, p.347.

Much of the popular media debate about architecture is overshadowed by issues of style and fashion. The grand old New York architect Philip Johnson once said that "architects are prostitutes", perhaps selling their "naked modernism", "full bodied post-modernism" or "sado-constructivism" as street comer styles!

When, in 1947, American post-war modernism began to show signs of degenerating into a sterile formalism, James Marston Fitch proposed an alternative democratic architecture based on a scientific micro-climatic analysis. American Building quickly became a classic work on the relationships between architecture, buildings and the environment. In 1999 came the first major revision in over twenty-five years; it now builds and develops on the new ground of sustainability and green architecture.

 fig 1 – Global average temperatures - click on the image to see a larger versionIn American Building, architecture is seen as a mirror reflection of the forces of nature. The book asks the question: how can architecture modify nature in man’s favour? The impact and appreciation of environmental forces has changed since the original publication; there is increasing evidence of profound climatic change triggered by the combustion gases generated by world-wide industrialisation. In this respect, America is the largest and the greatest producer of global architecture and generator of waste greenhouse gases, brown field sites and waste building materials.

fig 2 – Falling Water - click for larger imageDespite a developing environmental perspective, we continue to discuss architecture largely through its visualaesthetic. American Building challenges this exclusive notion of visual appreciation in favour of multi-dimensional and poly-directional environmental approaches. The visual emphasis, for example, is seen in the significance of black and white photographs in the promotion of earlier 'modern movement' monuments such as the photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water; the photograph became more important than the building itself. There is still a tendency to focus on the visual at the expense of the sensory and environmental qualities of touch, sound, and smell. 

American Building argues for a more scientific basis of aesthetic judgement and decision-making. It questions how architecture regulates the body’s transactions, senses, metabolism and habitat. Architecture is described as the third environment, by means of which we surround ourselves with a tailor-made environment interposed between ourselves and the world. America Building asks important questions:

·         What are the social consequences of architectural intervention in the national environment?

·         How can we be more proactive in natural design?

·         How can design be more accessible for everybody?

fig 3 - mud masonry house - click for larger imageIn 1947, American Building was way ahead of its time in raising environmental matters, stewardship, energy and resource efficiency. In this respect, the original publication can be compared with the works of the great American engineer R. Buckminster Fuller, who had a similar scientific approach to environmental design. Now in 2002, we encompass all these matters under the headings of Green Architecture, Sustainable Environments and Healthy Buildings. American Building illustrates how the heating and cooling of buildings has developed with different building skins able to respond to shifting environmental stresses, (e.g.: rotating screens, shielding devices in dry hot climates, Yuma, Phoenix, Las Vegas).

Any book about American buildings and environmental forces could not fail to consider the Oil Crisis on the 1970's. Early in the fig 4 - Real price of oil - click for larger image1970's most American architects were confident about controlling building design. The summer of 1973 saw major questions about the use of energy. The cost of fossil fuel and associated products skyrocketed: the real price of oil and the Middle Eastern conflicts impacted on the Western economies. In response to the Oil Crisis came a creative response in the design of solar energy housing, thermal storage walls and wind turbine farms. The global warming of average temperatures has also had its architectural impact. American Building goes on to question the design of buildings; how can buildings be, at the same time, transparent and solid? Can building design be based on aerodynamic behaviour and performance; how can the atmospheric, luminous and sonic environment influence design?

American Building concludes by addressing contemporary issues of sustainability, conservation, recycling and environmentally preferable materials. Architectural manipulation of space, time and gravity is considered. The concluding discussion addresses issues of architectural skeleton and building skin: morphological development of structural systems and the integration of environmental control systems.

fig 5 – Main Terminal, Denver International Airport. - click for larger imageFinally, we are offered an alternative American Dream of a rational scientific architecture, based upon the mud masonry of South West Arizona and the tensile and aero dynamics of Denver International Airport: from the Native American Tepee to NASA.

Nevada: Wasteland or Post-Modernist Oasis?

Buildings of Nevada, by Julie Nicolett, with photographs by Bret Morgan, Oxford University Press, 2002. 0-19-514139-3. 

"Unlike the dead spaces of architect-designed urban renewal, the Las Vegas Strip was somewhere that people actually went. They seemed to enjoy it. I didn't see frowns on their faces as if they were being coerced into going there. They voted with their feet for what they liked. Hated it though you may, people use it and like it. They don't live on the strip but they do go there to spend an evening or a few days. The Las Vegas environments gave me a shiver. The jolt gets you out of an aesthetic rut.'' Denise Scott Brown, writing about Learning from Las Vegas in 1965.

Think of Nevada: think the Strip, Hoover Dam and Nuclear test sites? Nevada is dominated by wild and dramatic deserts and boasts a rich natural history and a modern - if intriguing – man-made environment. Buildings of Nevada is the latest volume in the Buildings of the United States of America series that sets out to catalogue the best of the USA's architecture and built environment. The series was actually inspired by Buildings of England, by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and the first five volumes of American titles feature Michigan, Iowa, Alaska, Columbia and Colorado. Another fourteen volumes are expected in the next five years.

Wanderers in a Wasteland?

At first glance, Nevada is regarded as something of a physical and cultural wasteland;

in the 1920's Paramount Pictures used the finest 'Bottle House' (made of 20,000 beer bottles) as a set for a Western Film, Wanderer of the Wasteland. In the book Architecture of the United States by Dell Upton, there is a map showing sites of architectural interest in the USA: Nevada, Utah and Colorado, just don't get a mention. Given these impressions, it is intriguing to take a closer look at Nevada, this desert state, historically crossed by Pony Express tracks, railroads and littered with ghost mining towns and test sites. In scanning the state, region by region, we just cannot fail to notice the unique, unusual, historic and modern.

Native History

Most prehistoric and native architecture in Nevada was created for temporary purposes. During much of the nineteenth century most Euro-Americans travelling through Nevada had no plans to settle there, and even in the twentieth century this emphasis on the temporary persists. For centuries, the Fallon region has been recognised as one of Nevada's most pre-historic sites. The area has been occupied by pre-historic cave-dwelling peoples who left behind baskets, woven mats and a variety of petroglyphs.

Pony Express

To the east of Fallon, now in ruins, can be seen the low walls of undressed rhyolitic stones that mark the site of one of the unique Pony Express stations that blazed the trail in 1860-61. The station then became a stop along the overland mail route from 1861-1863 and also a telegraph station, which closed in 1869.

In Elko is one of the only surviving Pony Express cabins, measuring 3.35 by 5.5 metres and located in front of the North-Eastern Nevada Museum. Formally, it was built for a remote part of the Ruby Valley but concerned about the cabin’s possible destruction, the museum moved the building in 1960, the centennial of the Pony Express. Although many Pony Express stations consisted of rudimentary cabins for shelter, they were critical to the survival of the route during its eighteen months of existence in 1860 and 1861.

Indian Wars

In the early days of the state’s history, the Federal Government was fearful of Native American Indian attack, and Fort Churchill is a reminder of the early territorial days. The fort was built in the summer of 1860, shortly after the Pyramid Lake War. The army stationed soldiers of the Carson River expedition at the fort to protect the newly discovered mines of the Comstock Lode, as well as the Pony Express, settlers and emigrants travelling west. Soldiers and civilians built the fort near the site where the Overland Trail crossed the Carson River. The fort was made of adobe brick covered with layers of adobe mud, built on stone foundations and topped off by gable or hipped roofs. The fort contained officers’ quarters, barracks, stables, shops, a laundry, hospital and bakery.

Ghost Towns

Many of the settlements of Nevada are ghost towns, comprising places like Gold Hill, Eureka, Silver City, Virginia City, Tonopah, Battle Mountain, Elko, Silver Springs, Rhyolite, Death Valley and Goldfield. These ghost towns comprise collections of railroad structures, depots, sheds, station master houses, bunk houses, jail houses, stores, barns, brothels, court-houses and well towers. In Battle Mountain the Well Tower contains a holding tank on top of a rectangular one-story building with a shed roof. Both components have board-and-batten siding, painted bright green, and corrugated metal roofs.

Mormon Settlements

The Mormons were very active settlers in Nevada; they established Genoa, one of the state’s earliest Euro-American settlements in 1851. On Main Street Genoa is a reconstructed Mormon one-story cabin surrounded by a wooden stockade; it is a mid-twentieth century replica of the original cabin built as a trading station in 1851. The Mormons also built one of Nevada's oldest remaining buildings: Las Vegas Mormon Fort. It was built as a way station for travellers on the trail west; only a 3 by 9 metre building survives of what was once a 45 m sq. walled settlement. The walls of adobe brick are 0.6 m thick at the bottom and taper upwards to 1 m thick at the top.

Native Reservations

In 1877 Owyhee, an Indian Reservation, was established in the centre of the Duck Valley, for the Shoshone and Paiute. The Tribal Headquarters building is a structure that straddles the Nevada-Idaho border. This building asserts the modernity of the native Indian government of today in an era of greater self-determination. Angular forms, horizontal wood siding and interconnected exterior and interior spaces demonstrate that natural materials can enhance traditional lifestyles. Wall painting reflects traditional tribal arts and inside the tribal council chambers large windows look out to the hills beyond.


The development of the Southern Pacific Railways left a legacy on the landscape; in the town of Wadsworth is a Pullman Baggage Car converted into apartments. In 1863 George M. Pullman built the first modern sleeping car, which had a folding upper berth and seat cushions that could be extended to create a lower berth. The success of this car enabled Pullman to build a manufacturing empire; the Pullman Company retained a monopoly in the sleeping-car business into the 1940's. Railway cars of various types and vintages have been recycled in Nevada to provide residential and commercial use. The Wadsworth Car was produced for the Southern Pacific Railroad, the leader at the time in using all-steel cars.

Hopi Architecture

Adjacent to Wadsworth, rising out of the harsh desert, is the Pyramid Lake Cultural Centre and Museum. Local multi-cultural stone covers the exterior walls of the round building which has a curved roof rising to a triangular entry section. Inside is a central area for ceremonial dances, surrounded by stepped seating.

The Hopi Architect Dennis Numkena designed the structure after winning a national competition. Because the Paiute do not have a tradition of permanent architecture, Numkena relied on universal forms, such as the circle and triangle, and used native materials to reflect the building’s connection with the tribe’s ancestral land. Compared with much of the contemporary architecture erected on other reservations in Nevada, this structure makes a strong statement for Native American cultural identity.

Man Mountain

In the tiny village of Imlay, the Oklahoma born native artist Frank Van Zant built his own Thunder Mountain. Frank Van Zant was an environmental folk artist and spiritual leader who moved to Nevada in 1968 and he believed that a mountain of the same name, part of the Humboldt Range, held spiritual powers. He took the name Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder and named his creation after the nearby peak.

The three-storey main structure, similar to the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, is made of found objects, including bottles, rocks, auto-parts, animal bones, wood scraps, railroad ties and tiles, all held together by concrete. Inside are nine rooms and a staircase (made of bicycle wheels and handlebars) that provides interior structural support. Windows are glazed with windshields and television picture tubes; human faces look out of the construction and metal pipes rise to form a curving basket framework. Van Zant said he built Thunder Mountain to commemorate the Native Americans who came before him and to celebrate their closeness to the earth. By using discarded objects, he commented on the wastefulness of modern Euro-American society.

Modern Nevada

Nevada is a place of dramatic contrast; most of the region is uninhabited and two thirds of the population lives around Las Vegas. In the 1930's the population developed following the provision of water from the Hoover Dam. Legalisation of gambling coincided with the completion of the dam, providing new attractions for tourists. Hotel and club owners started to build the first ever casino resorts, setting standards for casinos today.

In the 1930's White Modernism arrived in the southwest; fire departments were built in 'Moderne' styles; hotels were remodelled to look more up to date. Cubes and superimposed rectangular planes suggested architectural references to 'Cubism' and the 'Dutch De Stijl'. Apartment buildings were built with recessed and projecting wall panels and steel frame casement windows. Some of these new windows wrap around the outer comers of buildings: a reference to the 'International Modernism' which became very popular in the larger western cities such as Reno.

In the 1940's Nevada was drawn into the war effort, manufacturing and storing ammunition. Large triple-arched magazines were designed to store highly explosive ammunition. Each arch measures 8 x 25 metres. Earth covers the roof, and on three sides of the structure reinforced concrete facades face a long concrete loading bay. A pair of doors pierces the façade of each section.

Boom towns, like Eureka, attracted many immigrants who left an architectural legacy such as their own Opera House. This was built with an impressive horseshoe balcony suspended from the ceiling and a stage curtain painted in Minneapolis in 1924, on which old-time advertisements for local businesses surround a framed seascape resembling a Venetian harbour. In the early 1990's Eureka County, rich with revenues from gold mines, spent over $2 million to restore the structure as a performing arts and conference centre. In 1994 the project won a National Trust for Historic Preservation Honour Award - the only project in Nevada to receive one.

The Strip

The Strip - that 6 km stretch of road lined with casinos and lights - is what characterises the city in the mind of most people. Once a dusty road leading to Los Angeles, the strip has evolved into an entertainment extravaganza filled with crowds every day of the week. The 'Moulin Rouge' Hotel and Casino opened in 1955 and was the first racially integrated hotel and casino. Downtown Las Vegas still contains remains of the earliest hotels and casinos including 'The Golden Gate' and 'The Golden Nugget'. Starting with the 'Pair-of-Dice' in 1939, the strip has grown and expanded to include 'Paradise City', 'Riviera' and 'Caesar’s Palace' in the 1960's. In the 1980's the 'Mirage Hotel' and Casino ushered in the era of the mega resorts of 'Excalibur', 'Luxur', 'King Arthur’s Court' and 'New York, New York'.

The writer Tom Wolfe has attempted to describe the Strip: 'Boomerang Modern, Palette Curvilinear, Flash Gordon Ming Alert Spiral, McDonalds Hamburger Parabola Mint Casino Elliptical, Miami Beach Kidney.'

Rising above Las Vegas Boulevard in a mass of geometric shapes, Predocks Library and Children’s museum strikes a balance with the whimsy of the strip. This building is inspired by regional forms and responses to local culture. The architect views architecture as being able to create a surrogate landscape, tapping into the sense of place, sensitive to how materials and colours appear in the bright light of the desert. He uses simple but bold forms devoid of ornament, which would be lost in the glare of sunlight. The building stands near the Las Vegas Mormon Fort and the path of the Old Spanish Trail. Here, the architect has designed a series of unique spaces meant to indicate the place as a crossroads.

Post-Modernist Icons

The popular appeal of Las Vegas became a rich topic of discourse for architects, as an example of real post-modern architecture, since Robert Venturis's visit in 1968. In the fall of that year the Yale School of Art and Architecture offered a seminar entitled Learning from Las Vegas,' and a book by the same name became a seminal publication for the post-modern architect of the 1970's.

In contrast with the hollow and lightweight facades of the strip, Nevada is also famous for two sites of twentieth century 'reconstruction' and 'deconstruction';- the Hoover Dam and the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. The Hoover (Boulder) Dam was built in 1931-35; the enormous resources marshalled to construct what was at the time the largest dam in the world signified the nation’s determination to accomplish monumental engineering feats during the Great Depression. The Nevada Nuclear Test Sites cover 3500 sq. km of desert in Southern Nevada. Between 1951 and 1968, fourteen atmospheric and five underground tests occurred on Frenchman Flat. Since the 1992 moratorium on all nuclear testing, much of the test site has become something of a ghost town. The surface of the desert is marked with radiation-damaged houses, including a Japanese timber-framed house which was built to investigate the radiation field from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

One hundred and sixty kilometers northwest of Las Vegas could soon become the final resting place for all the nations highly radioactive nuclear waste. An intriguing closing image of Nevada: strips of gambling casinos and hotels sitting above a nuclear waste dump, all making a potent post-modernist future ?

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