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10 buildings that revolutionized architecture, according to Geoffrey Baer

Geoffrey Baer. WTTW photo

Geoffrey Baer. WTTW photo

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9 to 10 p.m. Sunday on WTTW-Channel 11

Photos: 10 influential buildings and their Chicago offshoots
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Updated: June 13, 2013 5:41PM

Architecture aficionado Geoffrey Baer wants to make something clear about his new PBS special, “10 Buildings That Changed America.”

This is not a Top 10 list. Or a Best Of list. Or architecture’s Greatest Hits.

It’s an assortment of 10 buildings whose ripple effects sparked a sea change in American architecture.

“It’s 10 great stories about buildings whose influence is all around you, even though you may not have heard of all of them,” said Baer, who’s hosted several architecture-related TV shows for WTTW. This is the first to air nationally on all 350-plus PBS member stations.

One of the 10 is Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, a dark, glass box set back on an open plaza — the template for mid-20th century modernist skyscrapers, like Chicago’s Richard J. Daley Center.

Also featured: Southdale Center, a regional indoor shopping mall built in a Minneapolis suburb in 1956. With its simple facade, interior courtyard and multiple levels of inward-facing stores, it created a formula that had a profound effect on U.S. development. It was designed by Victor Gruen, a socialist who ironically thought shopping malls were the cure for suburban sprawl.

In Chicago, the Prairie Style embodied in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (1910) flew in the face of the tightly compartmentalized, vertical Victorians so popular at the time. The Hyde Park residence helped inspire the ranch homes that would become a ubiquitous part of the nation’s housing stock.

Frank Gehry’s whimsical Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. ranks among the 10, along with the postmodern Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia and Albert Kahn’s Highland Park Ford Plant, a “daylight factory” in Michigan that was home to Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line.

Rounding out the collection are the Virginia State Capitol, Boston’s Trinity Church, Louis Sullivan’s Wainwright Building in St. Louis and Eero Saarinen’s Dulles International Airport, the first airport created for the jet age.

Robie House is the lone Chicago entrant on the list.

“Early on in the process we thought there would be two Chicago buildings,” said writer and producer Dan Protess. “Then we realized it would look bad if Chicago’s public television station was promoting two of their own buildings. The idea was this should be a diverse show.”

Chicago’s runner-up turned out to be a pair of Mies van der Rohe’s apartment buildings at 860-880 N. Lake Shore Drive.

“Most people in Chicago have no idea that these two little glass-and-steel boxes on the lakefront are buildings that every architect everywhere in the world has studied,” said Baer, a longtime Chicago Architecture Foundation volunteer who still guides the occasional riverboat tour.

Mies van der Rohe’s influential steel-and-glass structures wound up on the cutting-room floor because no two buildings in the show could be from the same architect or city, according to Protess and Baer’s rules.

“There was a lot of horse-trading involved,” Baer said, adding that they wanted to include some lesser-known structures and have the 10 buildings represent different types and time periods.

The broadcast’s website, 10buildings, highlights 10 additional notable structures as well as 10 trends in architecture. A 144-page hardcover companion book is available for $35 at

The program debuts at 9 p.m. Sunday, but the list of buildings was made public several weeks ago.

As is typical with lists, people soon began weighing in on (read: complaining about) buildings that were left out. An irate woman from Texas called WTTW, honked off that they didn’t remember the Alamo.

“This isn’t about buildings where something important happened,” Baer said. “It’s about [structures] that changed the way a lot of America thought about and used buildings. It’s raising people’s consciousness about how buildings affect us all.”

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