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America’s Favorite Buildings

The architecture of California, to the chagrin of the Los Angeles Times, is uninspiring. Or so one might conclude from a poll of America’s 150 favorite buildings, put together by the American Institute of Architects to mark its 150th anniversary. It shows that the country’s most beloved buildings are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast, including the Empire State Building (1), the White House (2), the U.S. Capitol (6), the Chrysler Building (9), and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10). In fact, of the top twenty, a full sixteen are in either New York or Washington, D.C. And California’s most impressive showing is not for a building at all but for an engineering marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge (5).

Of particular distress to the Times were the lackluster ratings given those much-acclaimed Los Angeles gems, the Getty Museum (95) and the Disney Concert Hall (99). The paper offers no explanation for these low rankings, but it may be on to something. How is it that the center of the entertainment industry, which creates the imagery that comprises American popular culture, has been so lackluster in creating memorable architecture? The relative newness of the West Coast is only a partial answer, since the public clearly feels deep affection for a recent monument like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (10).

In fact, what is most impressive about the poll is how impervious it is to hype and publicity. The list is heavy on public monuments, museums, and buildings of state, and in that sense is deeply conservative. Perhaps it reflects a widespread affection for America’s symbolic architecture in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center (19). It is difficult to imagine that a list of popular buildings compiled before 9/11 would have been so steeped in tradition.

My main quibble with the poll is different from that of the Times. How is it that Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (27) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (29)—America’s two greatest houses, and two of the world’s greatest houses—are ranked below the Bellagio Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas (22)?


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