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By David Brussat, contributing writer,
The draft executive order that is stirring
within the Trump administration is forcing classicists in the field of
architecture to choose one of two paths forward. The path that goes through the
E.O., if it is not already throttled in its cradle, will give a boost to beauty
in federal buildings, and open the way to challenge the dominant architectural
culture. If this path is blocked, the status quo of modern architecture and its
dominance in the field will continue for decades, possibly centuries.
Modernists, whose control of the
establishment is threatened by the E.O., recognize the danger to their
interests and are fighting it tooth and nail. Curiously, some classicists and
traditionalists have taken up cudgels against their own liberation from
modernism’s hegemony. They are undermining the unity needed to prevail on
behalf of beauty.
Perhaps the most extreme example is the
Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The ICAA’s opposition was
predictable, since the board that runs it from New York City sliced “advocacy”
from its mission statement a year or so ago. No longer may chapters support or
oppose relevant developments under the ICAA imprimatur, not even in their own
regions. We are muzzled.
Why am I still in this organization, anyway?
Why does it even exist?
The ICAA should don its thinking cap and
consider the two alternative paths facing classical architecture.
The executive order, if signed by Trump,
would represent an unexpected but powerful intervention in a hopeless situation
– virtually a deus ex machina that offers traditional architecture a
path to recapture its dominance in the field, which lasted many centuries until
modern architects ousted tradition from the establishment after World War II
for no good reason.
The chief architect of the General Services
Administration recently resigned, and for the E.O. to be effective, the
president must appoint a sympathetic replacement, and he, in turn, must replace
or neutralize holdover GSA officials and managers who refuse to abide by the
new dispensation. If that does not happen, the E.O. will be a dead letter.
If it does happen, the GSA will snap its
fingers and battalions of fake Parthenons will begin marching down Washington’s
If the E.O. is signed and classicists at the
GSA are able to put it into practice, replacing the virtual mandate in favor of
modern architecture in effect since 1962, federal courthouses, post offices,
office buildings, monuments and other projects designed to please rather than
to offend will begin to rise in the city of Pierre L’Enfant and in cities and
towns around the country.
With each newly announced traditional
project, in or out of Washington, modernist architecture critics will howl, and
each time they do, the average member of the public will recognize how totally
ridiculous are the modernist claims that classical architecture is “not of our
time” or “copying the past” or “fascist.” They will judge the new buildings by
their actual appearance. (As if the average person is stupid enough to believe
that a building or its style is responsible for what takes place under its
Each building that rises up against the
backdrop of this “discussion” will help to confirm the public’s natural
preference for buildings that look like what they are supposed to be.
The executive order’s provisions would force
federal officials to bring the public into the design process from which they’d
previously been excluded. The modernist mandate from 1962, written by U.S.
senator-to-be Daniel Patrick Moynihan, reads in part as follows:
Design must flow from the architectural
profession to the Government, and not vice versa. … The advice of distinguished
architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important
Nothing in there about the public! During the
decades since 1962, the built environment has been substantially degraded by
modern architecture in and out of Washington. Modernists like to insist that
the public is not interested in architecture. In fact, architecture is not
interested in the public. Dismay at buildings that spurn conventional ideas of
beauty, and the public’s exclusion from the process by which these junkyard
dogs arise, has caused the public to tune out the built environment as a
defense mechanism against the ennui of experiencing modern architecture – in
part because individuals know that they can do nothing about it. That will
And once they are included in decisions
regarding federal architecture they will expect to be included in local
decisions about public architecture, and, at last, private architecture. This
will force developers to pay more attention to public taste, and to facilitate
the public’s involvement in the development process – because the public votes
for the politicians who get money from developers and influence what and how
they can build projects.
Once this process gets under way, the
architecture profession and its firms will be forced to diversify their
stylistic offerings to clients, private and public. That will force
architecture schools to broaden their curricula to include classical
coursework. It is not widely known that today there is only one  major
architecture school that offers a classical curriculum: the University of Notre
Dame. This will change.
Because classical architecture proudly uses
ornament to embellish buildings, the changes described above will reform the
largely monolithic character of the architectural profession. A revival will
follow in jobs for artists, artisans and other makers creating decoration to
replace the blank abstractions of modernism – a tepid sterility which fosters
illness, anomie, and a tolerance among citizens for treatment as cogs in the
machinery of society.
Because the public has a better (and more
sophisticated) sense of taste than most design professionals marinated in
modernism, public involvement in their cities’ development process will lead to
more attractive buildings, and eventually to a greater affection for government
buildings, and maybe, perhaps, respect for government itself.
The late Sir Roger Scruton wrote in The
Classical Vernacular (1994) that the classically designed street “is
humanly proportioned, safe, gregarious, and quietly vigilant, [and] constantly
reminds the pedestrian that he is not alone, that he is in a world of human
encounter, and that he must match the good manners of the [street] that guides
The producer of the Star Wars films, George
Lucas, reflected at least a subconscious recognition of this phenomenon when he
created traditional habitats for his good guys and modernist habitats (such as
the Death Star) for his evil characters. So maybe, in the end, classical
architecture will help America avoid the authoritarian future predicted by so
many elite thinkers. (I ended my last post on this subject, “Parsing
classical creativity,” with the hope that classicism could prevent
authoritarianism, and then a joke: “But don’t tell that to President Trump!”)
To top off this litany of almost certain
results from adopting “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” as U.S. policy
– no more a “top-down mandate” than its predecessor – it would make America
Okay. So what if classicists refuse to unify
behind the proposed E.O. and it dies for lack of support even among a large
swath of classicism’s advocates?
The status quo would prevail, certainly for
decades, possibly for centuries. Today, classicists mainly seek to advance by
placing more classical classes – not coursework, let alone curricula – in more
modernist architecture schools. Recently, classicists breathed a huge sigh of
relief that Notre Dame hired a traditional architect/urbanist, Stefanos
Polyzoides, as dean of its school of architecture. It became classicist only a
few decades ago after a palace coup at the school, and that could be reversed,
theoretically, at any time, even though Notre Dame’s is the only program whose
graduates can count on getting a job in architecture right after graduation.
Meanwhile, Catholic University, in D.C., is looking for a new dean of
architecture amid some doubt, apparently, that a classicist will be hired or
that the new slate of classical coursework at the school will even survive. Not
too long ago, the Boston Architecture College addressed funding issues by
simply ousting its minimalist classical program, and even refused to let the
ICAA exhibit in its lobby. If the E.O. goes down, more of this is what
classicists can expect.
If the E.O. dies, so will hope that
classicism can expand upon the slow but steady growth it has seen over the past
two or three decades. Today, the classical revival is based mainly on rich
people who, like most people, tend to prefer classical or traditional styles
over modernist styles. Whether they hire quality designers or otherwise, they
hire classical architects to build their mansions. The wealthy have been the
source of most classical commissions for decades, but the public doesn’t get to
see the work. The ongoing debate between classicism and modernism (which
modernists absurdly claim is over) may be said to have begun with ICAA founder
Henry Hope Reed’s 1959 book The Golden City, and was given a boost, at
least in Britain, by Prince Charles’s 1984 attack on the carbuncles of
modernism. By killing off the E.O., modern architecture will retain the whip
hand. New traditional architecture that the public can see, such as civic buildings,
will remain rare. Such new buildings are important. They teach the public that
traditional architecture is not lost to the past but is an equally valid vision
of the future.
I’ve placed considerable stock in the recent
proposal to rebuild
Penn Station using the 1910 design of Charles Follen McKim. It would
feature the sort of mechanical upgrading that has been a tradition of
architecture for centuries. This is a tradition that most modernists pretend
not to be aware of, as if new Georgian houses need to be fitted, still, with
lightning rods on the roof and outhouses in the back yard. Anyway, the Penn
Station plan, which is already a long shot under the current modernist regime,
seems the most obvious prospect for erecting a major traditional building that
millions of citizens will see, offering the possibility of a classical revival
reminiscent of the City Beautiful movement sparked by the 1893 World’s Columbian
Exposition, in Chicago. The new World Trade Center at Ground Zero in Lower
Manhattan might have had a classically designed rebuild – a traditional
proposal was offered by the firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery – but the rules
called for “architecture of its time.” Yale just erected two beautiful new
residential campuses in the Collegiate Gothic style (designed by Robert A.M.
Stern’s robust firm), but how many non-Yalies travel to New Haven to see it?
So, short of some other kind of deus ex
machina, what sort of possibilities will arise over the next decades to
stoke the dreams of Americans who want their country to be beautiful again?
Hope springs eternal, but the options are few and very difficult to imagine.
Yes, the federal government is working to extend a set of rail platforms from
Penn Station into the old historic post office next door (emblazoned with the
motto “Neither snow nor rain … “). It was also designed by McKim, Mead &
White, and is now known as Moynihan Train Hall after the creator of the modernist
mandate under which America has groaned since 1962. As senator, Moynihan often
went to bat for Amtrak funding. The station that bears his name is lovely, but
it is certainly not new classicism, not the role model needed to give
the classical revival a boost.
If the Trump administration were to back the
plan for a MM&W rebuild of Penn Station, would leading classicists oppose
it because of its connection to Trump? I hope not. And if not, then why do so
many of classicism’s leading lights oppose the E.O.? There is no plausible
Speaking of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, what did
he think of his handiwork in writing the 1962 GSA principles mandating ugly
federal buildings? Here’s what he had to say in 1970, just eight years later:
Twentieth-century America has seen a steady,
persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings,
and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority
of the public order.
freelance writing and editing on architecture and others addresses issues of
design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New
England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which
bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I.,
where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would
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