Architecture history often gets boiled down to the work of singular designers or meaningful buildings, points on a broader timeline of development or innovation. But that's not always the way we experience architecture. If a single structure can tell a story or showcase an idea, than an entire neighborhood, with decades or even centuries of history, development and design, can really showcase a style, and serve as a clearer picture of how we shape the built environment. As we start place votes for the Curbed Cup, our annual celebration of the best neighborhoods across the nation, we thought we'd look at some of the neighborhoods that have a wider influence beyond their city. These 10 have made significant impacts on American architecture, either by pushing innovation, showcasing historical development, or influencing designers, often serving as the example of particular style or era. There's many more than we could list, but these 10 provide of overview of important places across the country.
The Loop: Chicago, Illinois
Named after the now-rickety L train that circles the city's downtown business district, the Loop offers a masterclass in skyscrapers, engineering and modern architecture. Like the spines of books in the library, Chicago's most famous buildings, lined up next to each other, offer a wealth of knowledge about the works of some of the greats of the last century-plus, including Sullivan, Root, Burnham, Mies, Graham and many more. A stroll through the Loop (we even mapped one out for you) can take you past some of the first skyscrapers (Monadnock Building), Beaux Arts beauties (Art Institute of Chicago), modernist towers (Mies's Kluczynski Federal Building) and a cutting-edge urban park (Millennium Park), all in a few hours time.
Twin Palms: Palm Springs, California
West Coast Modernism calls many places home, including the neighborhoods where Case Study homes helped redefine residential architecture, and the subdivisions where Eichler made modernism a more middle class pursuit. But Palm Springs, specifically Twin Palms, may be where the style started to achieve critical mass. This is where the Alexander Construction Company, famous for building thousands of slick Mid-Century modern homes in California's Coachella Valley, first broke ground on a big development, following the 1956 Ocotillo Lodge, with a series of homes sporting the now-iconic butterfly roofline. First called the Smoke Tree Valley Estates, the neighborhood would eventually be named after the standard landscaping of each lot, a pair of palm trees. Soon, the style spread across the entire town, and Palm Strings became a poster child for modern living.
New Canaan, Connecticut
In this small, wealthy Connecticut suburb, keeping up with the neighbors takes on a different dimension when it comes to home design, especially after the arrival of the Harvard Five architects in the late '40s. Starting with Eliot Noyes, the first of the group to settle in town and build an experimental home, this circle of Bauhaus-inspired Modernist architects, which also included Philip Johnson, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores and John M. Johansen, began transforming the landscape with daring buildings that became templates for progressive architects. Initially, their work drew a less-than-welcoming response from locals. "Partially-opened bureau drawers set on steel posts and stanchions, an architecture as gracious as Sunoco service stations" was how one neighbor described these minimalist dwellings in a letter to the local paper. But a series of masterpieces, such as Philip Johnson's Glass House, have made it a point of pilgrimage for architecture buffs.
Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District: Oak Park, Illinois
The iconoclastic architect Frank Lloyd Wright spread his work across the country, so trying to choose one place as the best showcase of his body of work can be challenging. The best place to start, as they say, is the beginning, the Chicago suburb where the former apprentice to Louis Sullivan worked on a series of residential commissions and developed what would become the influential Prairie style of architecture. A tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright/Prairie School of Architecture Historic District, and the nearby Unity Temple, shows the young architect's style and vision crystallizing.
Levittown, New York
"Little boxes made of ticky tacky … little boxes all the same." Malvina Reynolds's famous song mocking the repetitive landscape of suburbia (specifically Westlake, California) certainly didn't heap any praise on the ingenuity of the architects or developers. But, like it or not, this cost-effective model became the template of post-war housing in America, sparking massive buildings booms in newly subdivided small towns that altered the landscape of the country in myriad ways, from the rise of malls to massive highway projects. This Long Island development by Levitt & Sons, Inc., which utilized the mass-production techniques that William Levitt learned in the Navy, turned onion and potato fields in Nassau county into an early planned community. The fact that the early leases for these buildings contained a whites-only clause points to a sad legacy of housing discrimination that's also shaped housing market across the country.
Historic District: Charleston, South Carolina
It makes sense that, before the concept of a historic district became commonplace, this Southern town with the municipal motto "she guards her customs, buildings and laws," would be the one to set a precedent. In 1931, the city took the forward-thinking step of protecting its irreplaceable collection of 18th and 19th century architecture by passing the nation's first preservation law and creating a Board of Architectural Review. The designation has helped preserve a wealth of buildings, including indigenous "single house"-style homes, Greek Revival residences and Federal period houses.
National Mall: Washington, D.C.
The nation's grand park, lined with statues and monuments, stands as an aesthetic accomplishment in itself, showcasing the nation's history and serving as a centerpiece for civic pride, celebration and protest. But the Mall also was the focus of the 1902 McMillan Plan, a design proposal for the District created by some of the leading architects and designers of the era, including Daniel Burnham. Inspired by the English Garden City movement, the philosophy saw orderly design and open spaces as means to ensure civic virtue and a better quality of life. The plans developed and implemented here would influence scores of cities across the country, from Pittsburgh to San Antonio.
Beacon Hill. Creative Commons Image by Michael Krigsman.
Beacon Hill: Boston, Massachusetts
Named after a warning light that was be perched on tall hill in the center of Boston, Beacon Hill, a brick-and-cobblestone filled series of narrow streets lined with Federal Style rowhouses, is one of the country's oldest neighborhoods. Sparsely settled in the early 17th century, the neighborhood truly started taking shape toward the end of the 18th century, with the construction of the Massachusetts State House (1797) and a series of historic homes for the city's elite, called the Boston Brahmins, starting in 1800. Work from famous architects including Charles Bulfinch, Asher Benjamin, Solomon Willard, and Alexander Parris can be found in this stately, historic area.
Garden District: New Orleans, Louisiana
Formerly a series of plantations, and then part of the town of Lafayette, which was annexed by New Orleans in 1852, this neighborhood gets its names from the large gardens that were attached to the grand Southern mansions that sprung up in the later half of the 19th century. Greek Revival style predominates amid the Antebellum grandeur, and grand porches and cast-iron fences ring these residential symbols of Southern elegance.
South Beach, Miami
A colorful mix of glowing neon and streamlined curves, this beachfront neighborhood wasn't the place where Art Deco was created, but between the spacious, sleek hotels and pastel colors, its appear like one of the truest expressions of the form. Landmarks such as the Raleigh and Fontainebleau have made it a must-see for those seeking unique design.