National or Regional? Finding American Identity in Architecture

In an extended discussion, Keith Eggener examines what it means for a work of architecture to be "naturally" American, and why looking at modern American styles through an intensively regional lens may be unhelpful.

1 minute read

September 15, 2017, 11:00 AM PDT

By Philip Rojc @PhilipRojc

Frank Lloyd Wright Oak Park

Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock

Basing his essay on a Portland Art Museum exhibit showcasing the work of architect John Yeon, Keith Eggener delves deeply into American architectural identity, both national and regional.

Eggener traces the idea of distinctively American architecture through the early 20th century, a period when international styles interacted with homegrown sensibilities in the work of pioneers like Frank Lloyd Wright. "Just as a foreign-born person may become naturalized when moving to a new country, so foreign-born architectural themes were being naturalized through their adaptation to American conditions."

In the post WWII period, Eggener writes, America's international predominance solidified its architectural reputation as the font of all things modern. But a parallel narrative around "regionalist" forms also emerged, centered on the suburbs. "It's notable [...] that the new regionalist architecture of mid-century America was limited almost exclusively to a single building type: the free-standing, private house."

Eggener goes on, "So it seems reasonable to ask: why does so much so-called regional modern architecture across the U.S. look so much like architecture found in regions other than its own?" Regional variation exists, but there's also a lot of architectural uniformity across the U.S. As Yeon put it, "Whether there is or is not a Northwest regional style of architecture is debatable, but what is certain is that lot of people want to think there is."

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