INFLUENCES ON ARCHITECTURAL CHARACTER
LANDSCAPE AND ECOLOGICAL
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
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
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.