The Greatest Work of 20th Century American Architecture?


I love great buildings and structures. I have taken over 500,000 digital pictures of buildings on every populated continent. Like most architecture buffs, I have favorite periods, styles, and architects, but I also love the diversity of what architecture writers call “the built environment.”
I have collected thousands of beautiful architecture books and texts which discuss the work and thought processes of architects, major and minor. Most of these books give little or no space to the unsung heroes of our built environment – the developers. Often vilified today, the fact remains that no building would have been built had it not had a developer or sponsor. From the Pantheon to Le Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House to the Louvre, from the Empire State Building to Frank Gehry’s Disney Theater, every building had a sponsor/financier, someone or some organization who said “I/we want to build such a building type here and now.” These critically important stories are usually given short shrift in understanding our built environment.
I hope I caught your eye with my title, “The Greatest Work of 20th Century American Architecture?” I put the question mark on there to denote that there is no easy answer, any more than there is one greatest movie or one greatest novel or one greatest baseball team or player. Such questions make up the fodder that keep aficionados up late at night debating their lists, the pro’s and con’s, the reasons why this structure outranks that one.
The book I recommend here is the story of my candidate for the greatest work of 20th century American architecture and, equally importantly, goes beyond the architects to tell the intriguing story of the decision to build, and process of building, this great structure.
My pick is Rockefeller Center, a giant mixed-use complex in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, the “downtown of the world.” I have long loved many New York buildings, including Grand Central Terminal, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building. But no structure better represents the commercial power of New York and the beauty and grace of 20th century architecture than the unified Rockefeller Center, the work of several architects led by Raymond Hood. This cluster of buildings is an integrated whole, which taken in combination has an immense visual impact.
The “centerpiece” is the RCA building, now called the GE building, which rises the tallest, a beautiful slab, with the Rainbow Room at the top. America’s largest theater, Radio City Music Hall, is one of the best examples of art deco – inside and out – anywhere. The ice skating rink in center court, the statue of Prometheus, the incredible murals and statuary, the way it all works together, are remarkable.
There may be other “mixed-use projects” – combining offices, shopping, entertainment and other uses – as old as this one, but I think of it as the first great such project. Hundreds off others worldwide have followed in its wake. At over seventy years of age, it becomes more beautiful, functional, and economically successful as it ages, the ultimate symbol of the enduring greatness of New York City.
How one man – a very rich man, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. – created this complex almost single-handedly, at the depth of the great depression, is one of the great adventure stories of American enterprise. The cast of characters – opposition, critics like Lewis Mumford, the contractors, the architects, the politicians – is as good as in any novel. Get inside their heads, witness their actions sane and bizarre. This whole story is compellingly told in Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, by Daniel Okrent (Viking Penguin, 2003).
I read comparatively few “narrative histories” – books which tell a story from start to finish – since I more often learn my history from historical reference books, dictionaries, atlases, and encyclopedias. Great Fortune is an exception, because it is such a intriguing story, an important story, and so well told.
If you find Rockefeller Center as fascinating and beautiful as I do, I also recommend the art books listed at the right. While Great Fortune is illustrated in black and white, these color beauties will add more vivid imagery to the story.
To understand the evolution of New York City and the personalities who built it, to realize how great things come into being against difficult odds, to get a feel for New York in the roaring twenties, you can do no better than to read Great Fortune.





  1. Rockefeller Center is outstanding in many respects, including the very public art, almost none of which would be judged as acceptable (politically or commercial) in such a building today. The mural, American Progress, is especially striking and uplifting.

  2. And, as you are probably aware, Lee, “Junior” Rockefeller ripped up some Diego Rivera murals intended for the center when he realized how radical they were. Lots of art history there, well told in the books I recommended.

  3. yeah, he was honoring Lenin. Think of it this way: Say you’re an advertising agency, and you commission an ad for the side of a building for Coke®. The guy does an ad for Pepsi®. You wouldn’t be pleased either.