September 04: the most important American architect whose name you probably don’t know but definitely should

2012/09/04 § 6 Comments

On this day in 1804 Thomas Ustick Walter was born.

The mountainous significance of Walter’s architecture to his country and the towering importance of his contributions to the establishment of the American architecture profession challenge a writer to come to terms with his story in a post of reasonable length.  She might be able to run through figures, events and buildings of lesser renown in short order–tackling the invention of Gothic architecture in 600 words, encapsulating the grandeur of the Taj Mahal and the essence of Mies in only 400, breezing through Brunelleschi’s great dome (and you know, a Muse loves a dome) in a paltry 300–but Walter is really important.

In short: Walter (d. 1887) spanned the most significant period in the history of architecture in America,  the decades during which every fundamental question about architecture and its practice was posed and addressed.  These include: the right and proper balance of historical precedents and personal aesthetic preferences, the role of new industrial materials and methods in building design, the impact of vastly improved communication technologies on design and practice, the relationships that ought to exist among engineers, builders and these new people who called themselves “professional architects,” the appropriate balance of technical and theoretical knowledge as well as training in an architect’s office and in a classroom, the advent of new technologies to aid the process of graphic representation, the use (and abuse) of competitions to win clients and public favor.  Walter addressed all of these issues with persuasive and compelling answers in a career that reached from the glory days of the so-called Greek Revival during the early National Period through the widening displays of historical borrowing and personal innovation witnessed in the architecture of America’s big cities during Reconstruction.  Twentieth-century architects might have faced new scale and speed issues, but the questions are fundamentally the same (and one could argue, had the later architects paid more attention to the accomplishments–and occasional mistakes–of Walter and his nineteenth-century brethren, we’d all be better off).

Walter labored for a half-century in the profession that he helped to define and prompted the invention of the American Institute of Architects.  He was skilled in working side-by-side with the masons whose traditions he respected and willing to go toe-to-toe against engineers whose incursions he resented.  The first American architect to write a formal history and theory of architecture, he designed hundreds of buildings concentrated in the Middle Atlantic states but also scattered throughout the country, as well as projects in China and Venezuela, overseeing that work in South America.  At the peak of his career he designed the project that is perhaps the most recognizable architectural symbol the world over, the dome of the United States Capitol.  How this titan has fallen through the cracks is truly a mystery.

image: in between “shells” of the US Capitol dome; note backside of coffer in lower part of photo (Clio’s)

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