The Unexpected: A Few Words on Architecture and Imagination

Posted on: October 17th, 2012 by Priya Chhaya 1 Comment

Honeycombed, rounded edges. Craggy towers, insectile caverns, seamlessly beautiful. Straight boxed edges, clean lines, looking within from without.

Prompted, in part, by the ongoing discussions about Prentice Hospital in Chicago, I’ve been thinking about a few of my favorite buildings, trying to pinpoint exactly why I am drawn to particular structures over others.


Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.

  1. Creativity. I love skylines of distinction, where buildings can be so in sync with the urban rhythm, yet unique and versatile. The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Seagram Building in New York City. The Disney Concert Hall in LA. The Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY. Each of these buildings, some with longer histories than others, tells a story through their fluid lines, curves, facades, and stained glass.
  2. Imprints of lives long gone. Classical colonial plantations and vernacular architecture tells us of how people lived. Upstairs, downstairs, private and public. Stories of class struggle and enslavement. Narratives of freedom and revolution. As a historian, one of my favorite things to do is to “read” a building. What can we learn about the lives that inhabited this space? How did they live? What are the invisible boundaries that separated one group from another? What can we see and understand about the human experience at Monticello, Robie House, The Tenement Museum, slave cabins, sod houses, and igloos?
  3. Imagination. Buildings can invoke far-off lands or spark narratives of non-existing worlds on imagined planets -- where we could be in the future, far from the cookie-cutter and the monotonous. I see this vision in Prentice Hospital, or the contrast between the brutalist War Memorial Center section and newer sleek Santiago Calatrava design of the Milwaukee Art Museum. And, for a quick glimpse beyond our borders, I see it in the Taj Mahal and the ever awe-inducing Sagrada Familia. All of these buildings inspire -- both in their grandiosity and their expression.


The Santiago Calatrava-designed section of the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

These buildings don’t have to be beautiful. What sets them apart is that they have their own vocabulary, their own sense of being, and their own narratives. More importantly, they are a spark for looking beyond -- outside boxes -- to encourage new heights, adventures, and innovations. And there is something galvanizing about seeing the magical and lofty in a human-made structure. They are settings for old histories and new stories. They are more than the expected.

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Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya

Priya Chhaya is Associate Manager for Online Content, Preservation Resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A public historian at heart, she sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American identity.

Architecture, Reflections

One Response

  1. Frank Form

    October 17, 2012

    Calatrava always stunning!!