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Duncing About Architecture

The ignorance and racism behind the right-wing push for “classical” federal buildings.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On February 4, 2020, the Architectural Record reported that it had obtained a draft copy of a proposed executive order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The order would, essentially, force a rewrite of the 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which mandated that “an official [architectural] style must be avoided” for federal buildings and that new buildings should be exemplary of the time in which they are built. The proposition put forth by this new executive order—which is spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a conservative nonprofit—would essentially scrap the old guidelines in favor of a mandate that establishes a “classical style” inspired by Greek and Roman architecture as the default.

The American Institute of Architects—along with several other institutions, architecture critics, and publications—swiftly published vehement denunciations to this plan, on the grounds that it would stifle architecture and violate the free thought and artistic expression that are essential to a democracy. Comparisons have already been made to Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin. Everyone is very mad online, except for Ross Douthat, who loves the idea.

The abrupt aesthetic reversal heralded by this executive order has some obvious underpinnings, beginning with the fact that the reversion to a mandatory classical style reflects the architectural philosophies of white supremacists online, as well as the doings of a developer-president and a right-wing think tank making what is explicitly a political move. But this is also the inevitable result of an architectural faux-populism that has been sown in the conscience of American architecture since postmodernism.

The effort to stifle aesthetic expression in public architecture by instating a mandatory style is wrong for all the reasons the AIA and the Chicago Sun Times editorial board lay out in opposition. The proposal would allow Trump to create a “President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture,” which would enforce this design mandate, and this panel would exclude “artists, architects, engineers, art or architecture critics, members of the building industry or any other members of the public that are affiliated with any interest group or organization” involved in architecture. Speaking as an architecture critic, this is insane and borderline totalitarian. But as with all the insane and borderline-totalitarian things Trump does, it can be partially explained by the man himself.

Whether we like to admit it or not, Trump is an architectural president—in his professional life as a (failing) developer, he has had his grubby, tiny hands in myriad buildings across the country. Like all building-peddlers, Trump is subjected to the gaze of architecture critics, who have on occasion praised his work but have most often panned it. Though Trump has put up buildings ranging from nineteenth-century retrofits to late-modern skyscrapers, his personal style is a combination of 2000s bling and Louis XIV—nothing in his penthouse Trump Tower apartment is spared a metallic coating. His choice of modernism for the style of the Trump Towers in Chicago and New York can simply be explained away by the fact that modern, all-glass buildings are the hegemonic aesthetic signature of corporate capitalism: It is the style of big business.

Trump has found a kindred soul in the right-wing Federalist Society clod Justin Shubow, who is the president of the National Civic Art Society. NCAS is an unhinged conservative think tank founded by Catesby Leigh (who authored an infamous editorial on this topic in the conservative publication City Journal last year), hell-bent on forcing neoclassical architecture on the entire country. Trump already appointed Shubow to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts in 2018 (as well as both another NCAS member and an architect practicing in the classical style in 2019), and it’s no coincidence that the proposed Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture bars architecture critics but allows at least one member of the Commission of Fine Arts.

Shubow is already infamous in D.C. architecture circles for his very public hatred of Frank Gehry’s Eisenhower Memorial, proposed in 2012 and wrapping up construction this year.* The Los Angeles Times’s Christopher Knight wrote extensively in 2012 about the nutjob-filled world in which Shubow and his organization reside. As for NCAS, the central tenet of its belief system is that modern architecture is a degenerate art form, bringing about the downfall of Western Society. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Hitler and his chief architect, Albert Speer, believed the same thing; and because crypto-fascist Twitter accounts have been spewing garbage about the inherent beauty and superiority of Western European cities and classical architecture for many years.

Neoclassical architecture isn’t always a right-wing dogwhistle. Most architects are required to learn about it in their architectural history classes, and many architects train at architecture schools (most notably the University of Notre Dame) that specialize in traditional Western architectural language. These architects sometimes go on to work on new buildings, but many ply their trade in restorations, renovations, and additions to existing traditional buildings. There is beauty and nuance in classical architecture, and it is worth studying—if more people studied how a traditional building comes together, we would end up with a lot fewer McMansions.

The issue of establishing a national style for federal buildings, while also the domain of infamous dictators, has its place in American architectural history. It can be found in the Colonial and Federal-style buildings constructed during the very founding of the country, the Beaux Arts style’s domination of federal buildings in D.C. in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the widespread uniformity of buildings built during the New Deal under the Works Progress Administration—though it is worth clarifying that these were not officially encoded in any kind of law or shoehorned through an executive order drafted by nincompoops.

While there have always been classical revivals in architecture, the most recent iteration of this was the postmodern movement, beginning in the late 1970s and ending, for the most part, around the 1990s. A substyle of postmodernism, called postmodern classicism, was practiced in the 1980s by architects such as Robert A.M. Stern, Leon Krier, and Michael Graves. These buildings used classical elements but distorted them in some way, such as by compiling ornaments in collage-like assemblages and contrasting classical motifs with the use of modern materials and cotton candy pastels. The establishment of movements like new urbanism, which demonized both modern architecture and American urban planning (whether sprawl or urban renewal), further concentrated the ideological zeal toward Old Stuff.

During the postmodern period, a faux-populist narrative emerged. Modernism was a failure: It destroyed the fabric of cities under the auspices of urban renewal, it forced an ascetic style onto the American people who, in their homes and places of commerce, were devoted to a sprawl that tended aesthetically toward the traditional, much to the chagrin of Architecture writ large. This was best articulated by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who wrote the influential book Learning From Las Vegas, in which the authors say that “Main Street is almost alright” and urge their fellow architects to pay more mind to “ugly and ordinary architecture.”

Learning From Las Vegas is a nuanced (and very funny) book, but its message was quickly flattened into “Modernism is a failure, and ordinary people hate modernism and like red barns and gables.” This populism, which is ultimately centered on what buildings people consume (McDonald’s restaurants and ticky-tacky suburban fare) rather than the flourishing and nuanced aesthetic tastes of millions of Americans, has reared its ugly head time and time again, across all kinds of ideologies—from the desks of Nathan J. Robinson, the publisher of the socialist magazine Current Affairs, to Marion Smith, the chairman of NCAS. Smith, who said in a text message to The New York Times responding to the proposed executive order: “For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings.… This executive order gives voice to the 99 percent—the ordinary American people who do not like what our government has been building.”

The notion of the “architecture of the people”—the architecture that the people really want—fuels both ads for new suburban developments and the architectural ideologies of the Nazis. Claiming to speak for the aesthetic tastes of the Everyman is a trick tucked up the sleeve of both Don Draper and Albert Speer; it’s so cheap that it’s hard to ascribe any real morality to it. Most people aren’t really thinking about the architecture of McDonald’s when they go to the drive-through, and while people love taking pictures on the steps of the Capitol building, they also enjoy taking selfies in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Simply put, people love good buildings, modern and traditional. More to the point, architecture is imbued with all manner of personal meaning to the people who experience it, regardless of how good it is. After all, the houses most of us grow up in are not architectural masterpieces. However, only a specific kind of person looks at architecture and feels the need to talk about the Grecian ideal or the backbone of Western Society. That person is usually either a white supremacist, a stuck-up nitwit trapped in the 1980s, or, in the case of Trump himself, both.

* This piece has been updated to remove a characterization of Shubow from an anonymous source.