The character of the Great Plains landscape

is dominated by spaciousness. Shaped by winds

and glaciers, the topography is gently rolling

with native vegetation of mixed grass prairie

(a combination of tall grass and mixed grass).

Riparian areas are marked by verdant strands

of hardwood trees that serve as a contrast to

the rolling grasslands. This expanse of land can

be overwhelming to the human scale. Horizontal

forms predominate; they carry the eye to a

seemingly limitless horizon. Vertical forms seem

out of place and dwarfed by the horizontal

expanse of the landscape. In the visual sense,

the Great Plains have been compared to the

open sea.


The climate adds to the sense of exposure

characterizing the Great Plains. Rainfall is sparse

and temperatures vary widely throughout the

year, even within a day. Humidity is low, which

results in intense sunlight and clear, brilliantly

blue skies. These conditions are accentuated by

the ever-present wind. With little landform to

obstruct continental air movements, weather

fronts move continuously across the plains. In

the winter, cold fronts move on the winds from

Canada; and in summer, storms and tornadoes

are born in the Gulf of Mexico. Winters are cold,

and summers can be hot and dry.


The expansiveness and harshness of the landscape

offers challenges and opportunities to the built

environment. The strong horizontal form of the

landscape and the dramatic forces of the climate

demand a careful response. Buildings constructed

without sensitivity to siting, color, massing, and

materials can appear very awkward and easily

mar the views within the landscape. They must

also be constructed to provide shade and shelter

from the winds, heat, and cold. Done right, the

result is one of the more distinctive forms

in the country.


Visually and climatically, the Great Plains share

many characteristics with other arid

grassland landscapes in the Western United

States. The architectural character types

described in this section may apply to those

grasslands as well.



The early buildings and related structures

erected by homesteaders, farmers, and ranchers

harmonize with the Great Plains. The long, broad

roofs shield people from wind and sun, but they

also complement the rolling landscape. The sod

roofs of early settler cabins create buildings

that grow from the landscape itself. The bases

of traditional buildings appear to be rooted.

Structures such as windmills and silos

symbolize the built environment within the

prairie landscape.


As developed by Frank Lloyd Wright around

1900, prairie-style design made major

advances in the art of blending buildings and

structures within their locations. The forms

Wright developed—low, horizontal buildings with

long rooflines and overhanging eaves—work well

on the Great Plains.


Other influences include:

Farming and Ranching: Isolated in windswept,

sun-beaten settings, the traditional farms

and ranches of the Great Plains are excellent

examples of architectural response to climate.

They were built from materials available nearby.

Their orientations and rooflines were carefully

planned to withstand snow loads, high winds,

and hot sun. They can be clustered in sheltering,

village-like complexes that are flexible for changing

uses and adaptations.


Railroads: Railroads not only shaped the

landscape but allowed building materials and

prefabricated building parts, such as cast-iron

façades, to be shipped from other regions.


Immigration: The first European settlers imported

their own building traditions, styles, and

techniques. Other important influences include

Spanish, Mexican, and Mormon designs. Migrants

from other regions attempted to recreate the

lusher landscapes of New York or Ohio, as well as

familiar architecture such as Colonial Revival.


Prairie: The prairie style developed by Frank Lloyd

Wright and others in the Midwest is one of the

few indigenous modern styles of design to emerge

in this country. Prairie architecture is low-slung

with elongated roofs that seem to hug the earth.

Windows are generously proportioned to take in

the horizon. Decorative details are abstracted

from native vegetation and geology.


Solar-oriented and Sustainable Design: This

sunny province has high potential to harness

solar energy for heat and power. At the edge of

the Great Plains, the National Renewable Energy

Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, has

provided leadership in “green” building and design.




Chapter 4.5 Table of Contents

Reader’s Guide