Google “Trump,” “federal architecture,” and “Albert Speer” and you’ll get a boatload of results, thanks to recent leaks of a draft White House executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The order mandates a reorientation of Uncle Sam’s architectural patronage along traditional—and above all, classical—lines.
What a fabulous idea. Yet a Yale historian sees it as a prelude to “fascism” and “genocide.” And journalists, some of them going to bat for the dismal status quo administered by General Services Administration bureaucrats in cahoots with the American Institute of Architects, have had no difficulty eliciting cris de coeur from the classical camp. Plenty of classical architects can’t stand Trump or have (or hope to have) patrons who can’t stand Trump or are wary of young architecture pupils who can’t stand Trump being turned off to classicism. And beyond the dreaded Trump taint, there is the Speer taint—the fact that Hitler’s architect and urban planner was the classicist Albert Speer. It is a specious indictment modernists have exploited since the end of World War II. And it’s taking on new life because for many of those who loathe him, Trump is some sort of crypto-Hitler. Or at least a crypto-Mussolini.
All this architectural-guilt-by-political-association silliness could serve as a valuable teaching moment. The relevant text on the matter is one many classicists know and admire. It’s architect and urban planner Léon Krier’s brilliant essay “An Architecture of Desire,” the introduction to his monograph on Speer’s oeuvre, originally published in 1985 and reissued three decades later.
“Classical architecture is not political,” Krier observes. “It is an instrument of politics, for better or worse.” And again: “Following the defeat of National Socialism and Fascism, the political conscience of all modern states has continuously confused the universal powers of classical architecture and the classical architecture of specific political powers.” Modernist ideologues have fomented this confusion. Which is the more reprehensible considering that the political conduct of modernism’s heroes is hardly above reproach. Mies van der Rohe waited five years for the Führer to put him to work before giving up and emigrating to the U.S. The anti-Semitic Le Corbusier had a prolonged dalliance with fascism and the Vichy regime. Modernism and stripped classicism alike flourished under Mussolini. More recently, modernist luminaries have eagerly sought work from China’s sinister regime—with unsavory results like Rem Koohaas’s tectonically perverse CCTV megastructure in Beijing.
Of course, America didn’t get Speered after the war. It got Corbed and Miesed. Corb’s dystopian urbanism inspired our nation’s colossal “urban renewal” misadventure, which especially victimized inner-city minority populations. Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters (1968) in Washington, for example, figured prominently in an urban renewal scheme that leveled a down-at-heel but perfectly viable old neighborhood with an overwhelmingly black population. GSA considers this ghastly structure a crown jewel.
Leaving aside the guilt-by-political-association routine, some argue that Trump doesn’t give a hoot about the design of U.S. courthouses and federal buildings, but will sign the draft order simply to infuriate the architectural elite he knows is allergic to his presidency. In other words, the order would just be a matter of political self-interest. Assuming for the sake of argument that that’s true, how does that negate a legitimate public interest in restoring a classical tradition in federal architecture that has served the country well since the founding—and continues to do so when it’s permitted to do so? And how does that justify carrying on with more than half a century of rampant dysfunction facilitated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture (1962) and their misguided empowerment of the modernist architectural elite as arbiters of taste? Must this salutary reform be delayed until the Oval Office is occupied by a statesman certified by the Right People as acting on proper motives, and only after a conference of concerned parties suggests its appropriate formulation? The Second Coming is a more immediate prospect.
The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art (of which I am a longtime member) has issued a statement opposing “any government-mandated ‘style’ and any dictate that narrows public discourse in the design of public architecture”—implicitly contrasting the draft order with the employment of classical principles of design in “a free and democratic process.” This makes no sense. The mere existence of the draft order has spurred more “public discourse in the design of public architecture” than we’ve seen in years. And the president, having been elected through “a free and democratic process,” is fully authorized to order whatever reorientation of federal patronage he sees fit—precisely as the Kennedy Administration did through Moynihan’s Guiding Principles, which don’t even have legal authority.
It's important to note that, just as “no politics” always turns out to be a kind of politics, “no official style”—the Principles’ key stipulation—wound up being a “government-mandated ‘style,’” or at least a confused cluster of modernist styles, thanks to their assertion that federal architecture “should embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Translation: whatever they’re teaching at the top architecture schools. The Guiding Principles have thus served as carte blanche for much mischief at taxpayer expense. Moynihan himself was hardly enthusiastic about their impact. We need to replace them with guidelines that hold greater promise of fulfilling his call for architecture that reflects “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American Government.”
There is nothing “dictatorial” about this, as modernists proclaim and the ICAA statement suggests. There is an underlying, non-partisan consensus, reflected in the results of a 2007 AIA architecture poll, that classicism is eminently well suited to civic architecture. “If the president approves ‘Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,’” Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee writes, “design would once again flow not from the architectural profession to the government, but from the people to the architectural profession.”
The draft order elevates classicism to the status of “default” idiom for the nation’s capital, while designating the classical and other traditional modes as “preferred styles” elsewhere. Modernism is demoted, not banned, and that is as it should be. But classicism is not a “style,” as it is called in the draft. It is the universal architectural language of Western civilization, a formal vocabulary and syntax that have lent themselves to infinite variation across the ages.
Classicism dominated federal architectural patronage until the Civil War. The tradition then became an option on a confused Victorian menu. (Its status on the latter-day GSA-AIA menu is far more marginal.) The Victorian confusion ended, for good reason, in the 1890s. From that time until the 1930s, hundreds of American communities benefited from the construction of handsome U.S. courthouses and federal office buildings in classically-oriented modes. These structures are readily identifiable by their monumental presence, dignified masonry construction, and often generous decoration. They stand apart from everyday constructions. And that apartness, or sanctity, lies at the origins of the great tradition that began with the temple, situated in majestic isolation in its appointed precinct. Modernism may produce the occasional good building, but it cannot supply an alternative to this tradition, and if it can’t do that there is no reason why taxpayers should be saddled with the cost of dubious architectural experiments, glassy banalities, or “postmodern” dumbing-down of traditional motifs. The AIA argument that classical buildings are apt to be “up to three times” as expensive as modernist work is bogus, as a number of new U.S. courthouses attest, and also ignores the serious structural performance issues of many modernist federal buildings.
Too many who should know better—especially architects and other influencers fully aware of the abuses committed by GSA and its AIA pals in the name of Moynihan’s Principles and “design excellence”—have yielded to architectural relativism. They undersell classicism’s unique symbolic legibility, grounded in its humanistic idealization of structure, and thus its suitability for federal buildings. Too many overlook the wisdom of a federal architectural policy that sets itself apart from the modernist anomie we encounter at the new World Trade Center or on Manhattan’s Far West Side. And even some commentators sympathetic to the draft order’s aims have erroneously denied the opportunities afforded by classical renovations of modernist mishaps (which the draft order also recommends). There’s no reason why the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building (1975) in Portland, Oregon—a generic concrete box designed by the corporate firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill—could not have been given a decent classical face-lift when it came time for a rehab. Instead, it was decked out with a glass curtain wall supplemented by a preposterous plethora of aluminum “reeds.”
The draft order is not perfect. It should focus more on classicism’s historic adaptability to regional traditions and changing social and technological conditions and not concern itself with the picturesque styles of the Victorian interlude. And the draft calls for a committee exclusively composed of government officials to implement it—one wonders how successful this will be.
Even if the kinks aren’t ironed out, however, Trump should sign the order, as it represents a much-needed shock to a rigged system. When a senator like Lee comes out in support of the proposal, excoriating a new U.S. courthouse annex in Salt Lake City that “looks like a giant air conditioning unit,” a corner has been turned. Federal architecture has gotten politicians’ attention, so Trump’s verdict will involve more than a personal aversion to the cultural elite. Whatever the outcome, GSA bureaucrats are going to have a harder time securing funding for new eyesores going forward.
And that is excellent news.
Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington. He is a co-founder and past chair and research fellow of the National Civic Art Society, which supports the proposed executive order.