Trump’s Culture Wars Come to Architecture

Trump’s Culture Wars Come to Architecture

Feb 25, 2020

11 Min read time

A U.S. federal courthouse in Islip, New York, designed by Richard Meier & Partners. Image: Douglas Palmer / Flickr

A draft executive order condemns the modernism of an aesthetic elite in favor of popular neoclassicism. The ensuing controversy has obscured not just the diversity of each style, but also the economic forces behind the business of building.

Nearly everything is exasperating about the debate surrounding the Trump administration’s draft executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” 

The foremost problem is the order itself. An intemperate jeremiad against modernist architecture, it proposes that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for government buildings in Washington and for federal courthouses; the subsequent fine print is designed to ensure that exceptions would be difficult and unlikely. The order first nails its list of grievances to the door of Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist Hubert Humphrey building. It then proceeds to derogate federal architecture over the last fifty-eight years in support of its argument that the government has “stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.”

There is no doubt that many things have gone wrong in federal construction. But to fire the blunderbuss at the whole modernist lot is to flatten a century’s worth of aesthetic and historical complexity into a cinderblock.

The draft has provoked well-warranted opposition from a chorus of critics: every conceivable architectural professional organization, historic preservationists, architectural historians, and a wide range of others. Most of this response has been sound and reasonable; some has been intemperate and outlandish. The order’s exaggerated contempt for modernism as a willful and deliberate assault on beauty has provoked similarly overheated charges identifying neoclassicism as a vessel for fascismwhite supremacy, and genocide. In this, the Trump administration has displayed its typical incendiary skill at pouring accelerants onto any squabble, inflaming ground that has largely managed, until now, to escape the pitched battles of the ever-widening culture wars.

The struggle is emblematic of the Trump years in another way, too: it has revealed another set of unlikely bedfellows of the administration in one group of architectural traditionalists, who would by all rights loathe the president were he unlikely to grant them power and influence. These architectural nostalgists are happy to embrace a man whose main legacy in the world of building is glassy ’80s excess (achieved infamously in two instances by demolishing one landmark and suffocating another).

But, unsurprisingly, all this political squabbling leaves a lot to be desired, reducing the nuances of architectural history to cheap talking points. Neoclassicism will seem sinister if you associate it with Albert Speer’s Nazi Volkshalle, but swap that out for the Lincoln Memorial—or any number of other icons of democracy—and you get a different picture. Those disdainful of modernism will counter this critique of classicism with Mies Van Der Rohe’s and Philip Johnson’s dubious relationships with the Nazis, as well as Le Corbusier’s with Vichy France. Either way, the most objectionable enthusiasts of a style should not exclusively define its memory, and there are more interesting questions here than which style is the “most” fascist.

• • •

According to varied sources the draft of the order was written by Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) and recent Trump appointee to the federal Commission of Fine Arts, which is charged with providing aesthetic advice on new construction in the District of Columbia. The NCAS’s mission is to promote “the forms, principles, and standards of the unparalleled classical tradition, and the humanistic architectural idioms and vernaculars (such as regional styles) that are derived from it.” The trouble is that this advocacy is welded to a contempt for modernism that starts at their “About” page’s comprehensive slur: “Modernism has various strands, but all of them reject traditional standards of beauty and harmony. Indeed, ‘beauty’ is a forbidden word.” You can see why it might be hard to remain composed in replying to this sweeping mistruth. One other recent appointee to the Commission of Fine Arts is a member of the NCAS’s board of directors; another is a classical architect.

The order purports to replace the 1962 Guiding Principles on Federal Architecture, authored by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former senator from New York and government gadfly throughout multiple administrations. These principles asserted: 

The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa. The Government should be willing to pay some additional cost to avoid excessive uniformity in design of Federal buildings. Competitions for the design of Federal buildings may be held where appropriate. The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.

The new order contends that Moynihan’s report—not to be confused with the more famous document by that name—“implicitly discouraged classical and other designs known for their beauty,” unleashing buildings that “ranged from the undistinguished to designs the public widely considered uninspiring, inconsistent with their surroundings and the architectural heritage of a region, and even just plain ugly.” Its solution is a new mandate of “traditional architectural style,” which it defines as “classical architectural styles and such historic humanistic styles as the Gothic style, the Romanesque style, and the Spanish colonial and other Mediterranean styles generally found in Florida and the American Southwest.”

The most objectionable enthusiasts of a style should not exclusively define its memory, and there are more interesting questions here than which style is the “most” fascist.

One welcome difference between this and other culture war clashes is that beyond the NCAS there have been few Franklin Graham–like courtiers among traditional architects and historians. Reception of the order among traditional architects has largely ranged from silence to hostility. Most, no doubt, are aware that an unpopular style (in terms of current construction) is not about to benefit from the partisanship of an unpopular president. Indeed, Michael Lykoudis, the dean of one of the country’s most significant traditional architecture programs at Notre Dame, wrote in the Washington Post praising the Moynihan Principles and objecting to the order. One member of the Civic Arts Society’s Advistory Board, John Massengale, resigned in protest at the group’s support of the order. Art Historian Michael J. Lewis likewise objected in the Wall Street Journal, “The problem . . . is not the functional or symbolic suitability of official classicism but of official taste in general. An official court style is a dreary and stale thing.”

As these defections suggest, the battle here has been carried on more by enthusiasts than by classical architects themselves. That does not mean the partisans do not have a point. Some of them are objectionable and some are crankish, but the order surely does speak to some popular measure of dissatisfaction with modern architecture (even if it is plainly false that everyone shares this dissatisfaction—I certainly don’t). I have no doubt that the draft is correct when it states, “Surveys show that the public prefers buildings that predate the Guiding Principles to those built under them.” Its contention that the Government Services Association (GSA), which sets engineering and design policies and criteria for government buildings, should “publicize and hold public comment periods on the final building designs under consideration” would, in all likelihood, result in preferences for more traditional designs.

It is also wrong to pretend that the reaction against modern and contemporary architecture is distinctive of Trump supporters, or to treat this as a manifestation of white supremacy instead of a broader, if complex, question of taste. On the left, for example, Nathan Robinson and Brianna Rennix’s Current Affairs piece from 2017, “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture,” has been repeatedly cited in recent weeks, and Matt Ford at The New Republic weighed in with “The Non-Fascist Case for Traditional Architecture.” There have also been a number of accounts sympathetic to the order from Trump-skeptical conservative figures. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat’s argument that construction might best inspire a range of the public if it varied in character by administration likely isn’t wrong.

Neoclassicism will seem sinister if you associate it with Albert Speer’s Nazi Volkshalle, but swap that out for the Lincoln Memorial—or any number of other icons of democracy—and you get a different picture.

The order also is not entirely wrong that an elite has sustained the hegemony, if not of a simplistic modernism, then of a range of modernisms. These styles have, at times, marginalized traditional modes of architecture, or at least directed little praise to its continuation. It is certainly true that some modernists mounted an ideological assault on traditional architecture at midcentury. Traditionalists had good reasons to feel besieged on a variety of fronts: everything from architecture schools and professional organizations to, the Commission of Fine Arts was stocked heavily with modern architects in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Among them were Gordon Bunshaft, Walter Netsch, Aline Saarinen (wife of Eero and an artist herself), Kevin Roche, Chloethiel Woodard Smith, and more. I happen to think that all of these architects are great, but theirs too was an ideological project; the modern era produced all sorts of ugly and bad and dehumanizing buildings, along with great and beautiful ones.

• • •

Still, if there is a problem with contemporary building, it is not—as the Trump administration suggests—government elitism all the way down. The politically divisive debate over popular versus elite taste obscures other reasons why we don’t see more traditional construction, and that is a gap we should not leave for vengeful antimodernists to fill. Their account often amounts to the fairytale that austere academic elites took all of our nice buildings away, which we could have back if only we tipped them all out of the castle. In fact, the sway of fervent modernists over this domain has unquestionably declined, and these people aren’t usually the ones commissioning buildings anyway. The primary drivers of the decline of classical construction have been, instead, the economy of modern building methods and the adoption of standardized building materials, as well as a steep increase in labor costs in the last century.

If there is a problem with contemporary building, it is not—as the Trump administration suggests—elitism all the way down. The primary drivers of the decline of classical construction are changes in the business of building.

Indeed, civic construction trends have tended to follow those in the rest of society, which over the long midcentury ascendance of modernism were being set not by government and academic authorities but often by big business, tract homebuilding, and the like. Most unsatisfactory government commissions look like anonymous office buildings, not like avant-garde efforts designed to shock. If some right-wing populists are coming around to dislike these things, then all the better for an understanding of what has actually been going on, but their stock villains—left-leaning elitists—have not generally been updated with any accuracy. Deconstuctivist king Peter Eisenman, for his part, has declared that “most of my clients are Republicans, most of them are right-leaning,” and Sean Hannity lived in a Richard Neutra house. Former Civic Arts Society Board member and current Research Fellow Catesby Leigh did note, in a City Journal piece prefiguring much of the language of the executive order, that several of the order’s targets “cater to quintessentially private sensibilities that regard architecture in subjective, emotivist terms.”

Some traditionalists, swimming against the tide of these trends in the construction business, have held that the lifespan of modern materials is shorter than traditional masonry, and that even if classical buildings might cost more upfront, their long-term costs will be lower. This argument stands to gain some traction: after all, attention to sustainability has not been declining in recent years. On the other hand, it is difficult to believe that traditional construction is radically more efficient and that environmental advocates refuse to acknowledge this out of spite. In any case, it’s not the fault of a cloistered architecture establishment that we live in an age where an obsession with cheap upfront costs pervades construction thinking: that’s the story of most of U.S. society. If classicists want to lobby the Trump administration for much-increased federal construction budgets, they are welcome to do so.

• • •

Do we undervalue the continued utility of classical modes, and their potential adaptation to contemporary uses? Absolutely. We should recognize that it is not a cadaver but a grand set of multiple vital traditions. And we should be more attentive to keeping this legacy alive.

Yet there is clearly a mirror problem of anti-modern zealots—including those behind the Trump order—refusing to acknowledge the diversity of modernism, its internal fissures, and the quality of any federal buildings except those that are most obviously classical in form. Partisans such as Leigh single out “trendy” projects by Richard Meier and Thom Mayne as examples of what scenesters in the GSA want, when most commissions are awarded to firms that have zero name recognition and aren’t daring by any description. And they impute to Brutalism and Decontructivism a sway in federal commissions that simply doesn’t exist, as a survey of GSA work or even of the Design Excellence Awards will quickly reveal.

In fact, in recent decades GSA architects have often explicitly tried to avoid the perceived flaws of bland government commissions. The anti-modern NCAS folks don’t like the modern Chicago courthouse, but the modern architect Henry Cobb—of the distinguished firm Pei Cobb Freed—agreed, writing in his recent monograph:

While one can accept, let us say, the reduction of commercial offices to anonymous space housed in a more or less attractive but inexpressive volume, one absolutely cannot accept that solution for a courthouse—as occurs, for example, in one of Mies Van der Rohe’s late buildings, the courthouse in Chicago, which looks exactly like the office building next to it.

Cobb designed two very thoughtful courthouses—in Boston and in Hammond, Indiana—that offer proof of sustained contemporary attention to classical precedent and the gravity of civic commissions, but they receive no mention in the order. Similar works that are unapologetically modern include Richard Meier’s marvelous D’Amato courthouse in Islip and Antoine Predock’s courthouse in El Paso.

There is no doubt that many things have gone wrong in federal construction, and we should welcome the identification of flaws in certain modern tendencies. But to fire the blunderbuss at the whole lot is to flatten a century’s worth of aesthetic and historical complexity into a cinderblock. We deserve more nuanced constructions than that.

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