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The Truth About American Colonists

Aug 27, 2008
The English colonists in North America were neither adventurers nor the rulers of great and ancient peoples. Unlike various colonizers down the ages, they had no need to impress the native people, nor did they have a strong local tradition to fit into. They were simple, hard-working people, often craftsmen, seeking a better life across the sea. There was little stone suitable for building, and there was no lime, which ruled out brick building, but there was abundant timber. As a result, the architecture of North America is largely in wood.

By the time of the War of Independence (1775-83), a strong tradition of timber-frame building had grown up, whether for public buildings, churches or houses. Wood-built towns, simple and well-planned, with the buildings often faced in shingles, can still be seen on the Eastern Seaboard of the early states. A Classical look became fashionable, and wooden villas and plantation mansions in the Palladian style multiplied. It was an undogmatic Classicism, since the columns of porticoes could be much slimmer than their stone prototypes. Thomas Jefferson used Ionic capitals because his slave carpenters were not skilled enough to carve Corinthian ones.

Jefferson, however, was a man of the Enlightenment, and he and other internationally aware architects like Benjamin Latrobe and William Strickland produced a rational and romantic Classicism - planned cities and masonry architecture. With these men, the United States had entered the international arena, and the seeds were sown for its leading role in architecture half a century later.

But timber building continued, and a vital development in this context was that of the balloon frame, devised by G. W. Snow, a civil engineer, in the village of Chicago in 1832. Thanks to mass-produced nails and machine-sawn sticks, the old heavy sections of wood and complex joints were things of the past. Balloon framing is credited with enabling the rapid expansion of settlements like Chicago and San Francisco in the middle of the century.

The North American "heritage" of forests, frontier-folk and shingle-clad cottages was readily kept alive in more sophisticated times. In the 1840s, Andrew Jackson Downing, architect, landscape designer and influential writer, advocated the exploitation of wood, and in the later decades of the century a "shingle style" was led by architects like H. H. Richardson and Mckim, Mead & White. They produced large mansions, informally and picturesquely planned, linked to the English free style (see pages 228-9).

In the city, however, Richardson (who had studied with Henri Labrouste in Paris in the 1870s) built in stone, as did Louis Sullivan after him, on a scale where issues of style were dwarfed by sheer monumental form. And this form was to have a metal frame, hydraulic lifts, central heating, air-conditioning and telephone intercom, as in Adler & Sullivan's vast Auditorium (1886). Balloon-framed Chicago had been wiped out by fire in 1871; what replaced it was the skyscraper, the second urban artefact to be invented in Chicago.
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Famous Architects Guide help you on your way to understand more about particular architect's life and their amazing works like Frank Lloyd Wright .
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