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The Homes, Parks, and Towns that Shaped the United States’ Built Environment

The built environment of the United State was constructed on grand ideas, including parks that inspired morality, towns designed to curb strikes, and homes that offered everyone their own slice of the land.

10 that Changed America
Gas Works Park in Seattle, designed by Richard Haag in the mid-1970s to turn a blighted area into a park celebrating the industrial past (photo by Matt Hagan, all images courtesy WTTW Chicago)

The built environment of the United States was constructed on grand ideas, including parks that inspired morality, towns designed to curb strikes, and homes that offered everyone their own slice of the land. The results were much more imperfect, with segregation in the suburbs, overpasses cutting through green space, and overcrowded tenements characterizing urban hubs much more than farmland. 10 That Changed Americaa three-part series from WTTW Chicago, premiering next Tuesday on PBS, explores the highs and lows of this architectural history.

10 that Changed America
Marina City in Chicago (photo by Bill Richert) (click to enlarge)

Each hour-long episode focuses on a broad theme — homes, towns, and parks — and ranks 10 examples chronologically. There are familiar icons like Frank Lloyd Wright’s waterfall-embracing Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, which resurrected the architect’s career and demonstrated how nature could be brought inside a home, and Chicago’s radical commercial and residential Marina City skyscraper with its distinct space-saving petal forms. There are also lesser-known cases like the grassroots victory of Overton Park in Memphis, in which a Supreme Court decision, as stated by Justice Thurgood Marshall, ruled that a federal statute “is a plain and explicit bar to the use of federal funds for construction of highways through parks.” There are failed attempts at controlling people through design, like the Pullman neighborhood constructed in the 1880s in Chicago by George Pullman for his workers, with the idea that he could discourage striking, and even dictate their behavior, with rules on dress and against sitting on your own porch. When wages were cut, and rents were not, the workers did strike and federal troops were called in, culminating with 30 strikers killed.

10 that Changed America
Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts (photo by Katherine Castro)

There’s even a cemetery — the lush 19th-century Mount Auburn in Massachusetts with winding paths around the tombs — which, as host Geoffrey Baer explains, “helped introduce the English landscape style to America.” It’s quite a lot of information packed into each episode, and while the top-10 list style helps structure the centuries of history, it does interrupt the flow a bit. It might have been interesting to have more connections between each point, like how the pueblos of Taos, New Mexico — the oldest homes discussed — might have influenced the shapes used by Frank Lloyd Wright, such as at his Taliesin West home in Arizona. Nevertheless, the new sweeping footage shot on-site for the series, and the interviews Baer conducts with architects, urban planners, historians, scholars, and current residents, illuminate how the urban landscape of the US came to be, with its skyscraper-pocked cities and cookie-cutter suburbs.

10 that Changed America
Langston Terrace in Washington, DC, designed by Hilyard Robinson (photo by Santos Ramos) (click to enlarge)

For the latter, you can assign part of the blame to Levittown, New York, built by Levitt & Sons in the postwar 1940s, where the exact same house was plunked down on orderly streets, aimed at veterans (specifically, white veterans, as non-whites were not allowed) who could purchase them with government-backed mortgages.

“A lot of the so-called victims of urban renewal tended to be poor people, largely African-American,” urban designer Marshall Brown says in an interview related to the razing of black neighborhoods to build tower-heavy districts in Washington, DC. “It was also termed ‘negro removal.'” Yet there are arguable successes, like DC’s Langston Terrace, built in the 1930s for African-American workers as an affordable alternative to the city’s dilapidated housing. Nevertheless, whether sustainable housing solutions or racial displacement, the issues addressed by these historic examples remain problematic in American urban areas.

Viewers of 10 That Changed America can further explore these issues through an online component. More recent projects demonstrate the current direction of design, like Seattle’s Gas Works Park, where in 1975 a toxic waste site was converted into a green space designed by Richard Haag that guarded its old industrial towers, and New York’s High Line, where abandoned elevated train tracks were transformed into a green walkway. As architecture evolves in the 21st century, the series argues, this balance between the old and the new, the industrial and the residential, the park and the streets, continues to shape our built environment.

10 that Changed America
Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park (photo by Steve Boyle)
10 that Changed America
Public square in Savannah, Georgia (photo by Bailey Davidson)

10 That Changed America premieres on Tuesday, April 5, on PBS. 

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