Architecture in American History

When we look at our surroundings, we can find out a lot about ourselves and our culture. Americans have long had debates about what makes a "good building." Aesthetics, purpose, quality, sustainability, social justice, and other important issues have all entered into the conversation. The way we’ll use the term “architecture” for this topic refers to “the art or practice of designing and building structures and especially habitable ones,” as defined by Merriam Webster. A term you see often today is “built environment,” which refers to the human-made space in which we live and work day-to-day.

Architecture provides historians with a deeper understanding of the past by answering questions as to how much time, money, and energy society is willing to invest in physical structures. Social historians examine the language of architecture to better understand motivations and beliefs of a society. Why were certain monuments constructed by a society? What was the purpose of a given set of structures? What technology did the builders use? What type of labor force was needed for construction? These are the types of questions a social historian might ask of the architecture they are studying.

Environmental historians use architecture to look at the interaction between humans and the natural environment. This historian studies the use of space to understand the way that past people valued the land. They examine how materials are extracted, transported, and utilized within the construction process to better understand the complex dynamics between us and our environment.

For cultural historians, buildings tell many stories. These historians may ask why a certain building or set of buildings were constructed. What does the style of the architecture say about the customs and values of a certain group of people? Why, in general, do some buildings stand the test of time while others are torn down? The design, the material, and the location present a narrative not only of function but of cultural forms, practices, values, and shared understandings of a society.

Architects are the professionals behind the creation of much of our built environment. They plan and design buildings and generally play a key role in their construction. As historians, when we research the work of architects we can see how they sought to recreate their own utopian ideals through their work. Images in their papers provide evidence of how these dreams were realized as well as the limitations of the construction process. 

The architectural collections with this topic characterize philosophies behind New Deal social programs and the development of the post-World War II consumer society and economy. 


Victor Gruen

Victor Gruen (1903-1980) was an Austrian-born American architect and city planner best known as a pioneer of the shopping mall. He opened his architectural practice in Vienna in 1933 but emigrated to the U.S. five years later after Nazi occupation of Austria. He arrived in New York City with his architectural degree, eight dollars in cash, and no command of the English language.  

Alfred Kastner

German-born American architect Alfred Kastner (1900-1975) played an important role in the development of public housing in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. He designed industrial complexes, entertainment facilities, and housing developments. Kastner collaborated with Oscar Stonorov (included in this topic) on the Carl Mackley Houses, which were built in Philadelphia in 1933/1934.

Oscar Stonorov

Oscar Stonorov (1905-1970) was a German-born American architect and sculptor. He was known as a modernist. Architects who worked in this style wanted to break with architectural tradition and design simple, unornamented buildings. Glass, concrete, and steel were common construction materials. Floor plans were functional and logical. 

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