Earlier this year, as first reported by Architectural Record, an executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” was drafted for the Trump administration. Behind the order was the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), a group of classicists whose ‘mission statement’ reads more like a love letter to ancient Greece and Rome. On their website, they attest to the “dignity, beauty, and harmony” of the classical tradition. And so, it is no surprise that their order then seeks to mandate “the classical architectural style…[as] the preferred and default style”. As with anything to do with Trump, the document has proliferated intense debate from all sides – for, against, and those who ‘just don’t care’. For many, it is perhaps easier to flippantly dismiss the idea as a mere distraction from issues such as climate change and exponential population growth- and I agree, it is a distraction. And even more so, in this Trumpian era of vehement polarization, it is utterly exhausting. But the truth is, it does matter. And you should care.
The draft is a lot of things, and the name says it all: alarmist, divisive, elitist. But we can start with ridiculously misguided. In 1962, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, penned the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture”, a set of design recommendations for American government buildings. He clearly wrote that “an official style must be avoided”. Probably for a reason! To impose what would essentially be a ‘state aesthetic’, would be to completely undermine the founding principles of architecture. Good architecture is not borne out of a particular style. It is a response to, and a product of, our evolving societies. And in returning to history, let alone a history codified by white, middle-to-upper-class males centuries ago – this order would essentially dictate America’s national identity. But perhaps just as important is that, it would perpetuate a nostalgic pastiche of ideals; a very specific understanding of history. For just as quick as NCAS are ready to reclaim the classical traditions of Athens and Rome, they seem to (conveniently) ignore (or perhaps forget- it was long ago, so who could blame them) the hierarchies and underlying corruption of these societies.
There is undoubtedly a danger in this illusionary idealization of a time that never was – a social, cultural, and political stasis. That is, this mandate would shift architectural discourse, whereby creativity and innovation were no longer signifiers of progressive free-thinking, but rather of a subversive patriotism. And so, the idea of ‘democratic’ aestheticism is, in itself, almost paradoxical. However, Justin Davidson, an architecture and music critic of New York Magazine refuted the notion that the executive order would “censor architects or stifle creativity in the country at large”.
Whilst logistically it would be confined to however many federal buildings can be built under the government, these constraints cannot be likened to those ubiquitously encountered by architectural practices.
To sanction a national style is not a “creative challenge” for architects, but rather, a disregard for what these buildings symbolize; a unified state. It is this fixation on a tradition that would inevitably yield architects who no longer sought to explore, to create, to succeed, to challenge, to fail; all of which have inspired architecture since its birth. But apparently to Davidson, that’s no “architectural apocalypse”.
Particularly in recent times, this revival of classical architecture has been dominated by the self-assumed prerogative of demagogues to ideological power in a “culture war”. Already the draft order has positioned classicism in antithesis to modernism. As if one is better than the other. Although, for those like Andrew Ferguson, a journalist for The Atlantic, one is; in his article “Trump’s Beautiful Proposal for Federal Architecture” (no, the title is not ironic), he writes that “the way to get people to stop constructing ugly public buildings with government money is to insist that they use government money to design handsome buildings instead”. He then makes his case by pulling out examples such as the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building and the Hubert H. Humphrey Health and Human Services Building.
And I’ll admit, looking at these buildings I too am unimpressed. But that’s exactly the point. Beauty is as subjective as it is comparative. We are constantly striving to define and tangibly represent our ideal beauty in accordance with the ‘infallible truths’ of antiquity. And yet, beauty and ugliness are no more implicit in Classicism than they are in the more controversial styles of Brutalism and Deconstructivism.
In saying that, it is almost peculiarly ironic that, in the twenty-first century, we have returned to the debate between traditional and modern architecture. However, it is such cultural divides that are becoming synonymous with the President, and if this order is signed, inevitably with classical architecture. But Classicism shouldn’t be the new Trump. But then again, nothing should.