North American Architecture from Pre-Columbian to Federalist
The architecture of North America spans many centuries and many distinct periods. In earliest times, buildings were constructed by Native Americans according to principles that reflected their cultures and religious beliefs. Later on, after the coming of Europeans, architectural tastes reflected those prevailing in Europe, but always with an American flair. Among the Pre-Columbian peoples, those who lived in what is now Mexico and Central America tended to build massive monumental structures of masonry, while those in what is now the United States were largely known for the ceremonial earthen mounds that still dot the landscape in many states. Communities were built of durable materials in the Southwest, while many of the peoples further south built impressive cities and ceremonial centers. With the exception of the American pueblos virtually all of these constructions were abandoned with the coming of Europeans. In the future United States, the European colonists concentrated mostly on modest residential, civic, and religious structures, the scale of building expanding after the birth of the new nation as the country’s population and wealth increased, and greater resources could be devoted to architecture. In all cases, the purpose of architecture was to serve the needs of its builders, and to reflect their values and aspirations.
The city of Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico, served as a model for the architecture of later peoples, such as the Aztecs. Major features of the site were the enormous step-pyramids that functioned as living embodiments of the people’s faith. The great stone Pyramid of the Sun marked the sacred center of the city, its structure and orientation marking the meeting the point of the natural and supernatural worlds. In form it evoked the idea of a “sacred mountain,” with distinct celestial, terrestrial, and underworld levels that, with the four cardinal directions, brought the entire cosmos together at a single point.
The complex symbolism of this and other pyramids was also reflected in structures found far to the north, in what is now the United States. Huge earthen burial mounds marked the center of settlements, like that at Hopewell. The sheer size of the mounds, and the riches they contained in pearl and shell beads, and beads and nuggets of copper, iron, silver, and gold, revealed a people concerned with maintaining the welfare of the living by serving the dead and perpetuating their memory. Though much simpler in construction than the pyramids of Teotihuacan and devoid of their stone representations of gods and sacrifice, these mounds served a similar purpose as they marked the point of intersection between different worlds.
Still occupied today, the pueblos of the American Southwest, represent yet another variant of traditional Native American architecture. Sets of individual houses joined together as one, they formed the nucleus of communal domestic and religious life. The San Juan Pueblo, built by the Tewa, mirrors larger ancient cites such as Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly. Set against a backdrop of the four sacred mountains of the Tewa, the pueblo’s architecturally created plaza forms the sacred center from which all points radiate, a “sipapu,” or opening to the underworld lying at the very center of the plaza.
Though in this case built of brick or adobe, the pueblo complex, like the similar creations in Mexico and further east in the United States at Hopewell and related sites, mirrors the cosmic order. Daily life and the life of the sacred universe are one. There is no distinction between temporal and spiritual, a reflection of a holistic Native American worldview. Architecture captures the soul of the people as it evokes the soul of all things.
Priorities changed dramatically with the coming of the European settlers. The earliest structures in Colonial America were primarily simplified provincial versions of European vernacular architecture. The settlers built houses and churches, and in New England especially, they laid out towns on the traditional English village model complete with “commons” and allied public spaces.
While to display a greater separation of the mundane and the sacred, in comparison to earlier Native American constructions, there are interesting examples of a broadly similar worldview in Colonial America. The Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania was a Utopian community that was begun in 1732. As at the Native American sites, at Ephrata, “religious beliefs formed the central, dominant element of the socio-cultural complex; elements such as political, economic and familial organization were all subordinate to and inflected by religion.”
Simply constructed of wood, the structures at Ephrata were built on a straightforward geometric plan according to a set of mystically-significant measurements.
There were communal houses for men and women, religious structures, as well as various workshops and other utilitarian edifices. Yet Ephrata represented an unusually direct combination of different kinds of space, and an attempt to create an ideal world. Sacred and secular were more often kept close to one another, but separate. The historical preservation area in Williamsburg, Virginia presents an excellent example of a Colonial city, and features a variety of architectural types and uses. The Governor’s Palace is a Georgian-style civic and residential building that is similar to many other large American houses of the period, such as Westover, Carter’s Grove, and Berkeley – all Southern plantation houses.
Evidencing the centrality of royal authority as opposed to the purely sacred, the building gives visible form to a hierarchical society in which ultimate authority is well-removed from the everyday. A complex series of spaces prevents one from approaching the core of the residence directly, while Palladian elements such as fan lights, pediments, cornices, and pilasters recall the latest in English architecture fashions and also the style’s ultimate model – the Roman villa, archetype of classical order and majesty.
As the King’s representative, the Governor of the Virginia Colony was an individual positioned somewhere between the sacred and the profane. Later American architecture – particularly as one approached the Federalist Period – further extended this separation between the different spheres of existence. In the nation’s new capital, even the government was broken down into distinct branches. The vast neoclassical bulk of the Capitol and the White House, located as they were at opposite ends of the monumental Mall, emphasized the distance between these two functions. The whiteness of the structures underscores the purity and virtue of the new system as did the restrained lines and severe order of the columns and other classical elements. The Federalist style proper continued the trend toward simplicity and the overt representation of the ideals of the New Republic. Designed by architect Samuel McIntire, the John Gardner House in Salem, Massachusetts, perfectly captures the new American emphasis. Its severe cubic plan and intensely regular facade suggest that it is the domestic sphere that advertises the rue values of the American people. The focus is on the centrally-placed entrance, and thin white Corinthian columns stand out against the structure’s brick walls with their regular lines of windows and straight stringcourses.
In this paean to Federalist architecture and socio-cultural vales, the theme of North American architecture has come full circle. Cosmic symbolism has been transferred from the meeting place of the overall community to the dwelling place of the individual – a fitting monument to America’s embrace of the individual.
Doxtater, Dennis. “Parallel Universes on the Colorado Plateau: Indications of Chacoan Integration of an Earlier Anasazi Focus at Canyon De Chelly.” Journal of the Southwest 45.1-2 (2003): 33+.
Gowans, Alan. Styles and Types of North American Architecture: Social Function and Cultural Expression. New York: Icon Editions, 1993.
Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos. “6 From Teotihuacan to Tenochtitlan Their Great Temples.” Trans. Scott Sessions. Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs. Ed. David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000. 185-194.
Connor, Mallory McCane. Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995.
Roth, Leland M. A Concise History of American Architecture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980.
White, Janet R. “The Ephrata Cloister: Intersections of Architecture and Culture in an Eighteenth-Century Utopia.” Utopian Studies 11.2 (2000): 57.
Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, “6 From Teotihuacan to Tenochtitlan Their Great Temples,” trans. Scott Sessions, Mesoamerica’s Classic Heritage: From Teotihuacan to the Aztecs, ed. David Carrasco, Lindsay Jones, and Scott Sessions (Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000) 188. http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=70446617
Mallory McCane O’Connor, Lost Cities of the Ancient Southeast (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1995) 17. http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5002571050
Dennis Doxtater, “Parallel Universes on the Colorado Plateau: Indications of Chacoan Integration of an Earlier Anasazi Focus at Canyon De Chelly,” Journal of the Southwest 45.1-2 (2003). http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99883323
Alan Gowans, Styles and Types of North American Architecture: Social Function and Cultural Expression (New York: Icon Editions, 1993) 15. http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001802433
Janet R. White, “The Ephrata Cloister: Intersections of Architecture and Culture in an Eighteenth-Century Utopia,” Utopian Studies 11.2 (2000): 57. http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001802433
Janet R. White, “The Ephrata Cloister: Intersections of Architecture and Culture in an Eighteenth-Century Utopia,” Utopian Studies 11.2 (2000): 57. http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99883369
Alan Gowans, Styles and Types of North American Architecture: Social Function and Cultural Expression (New York: Icon Editions, 1993) 61. http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99883369
Alan Gowans, Styles and Types of North American Architecture: Social Function and Cultural Expression (New York: Icon Editions, 1993) 61. http://www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=91044066
Leland M. Roth, a Concise History of American Architecture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980) 58-59.