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By David Brussat, Architecture Here and There
A provocative debate has broken out over a
draft proposal to return classical design to the heart of federal architecture,
especially in our nation’s capital. The title of the draft executive order, “Making
Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” leads with its chin, and is a product
of the Trump administration, so it is no surprise that ranks of establishment
architects have stumbled over each other to criticize the proposal.
Most critics pose their case against the order
upon the credo of diversity, seemingly innocent of the idea that the draft
order itself is a response to decades over which diversity has been purged from
the federal architectural palatte. Classicism has evolved over thousands of
years, with builders ever seeking a better way to frame the corner of a
columniated portico or to develop a leak-proof roof. It is inherently diverse,
although most critical responses to the order seek to “scare” readers with the
image of countless Parthenons marching down endless Washington boulevards.
Classical architecture was chosen by
Washington and Jefferson to represent the virtues of the new nation, based on
Athenian democracy and republican Rome. In the early 20th century, the founding
European modernists created an architecture in which most people would be cogs
in cities catering to socialist and authoritarian principle, and then brought
it to America. Having tossed the toolbox of beauty developed over centuries,
the style was and always has been generally unpopular, and, in order to
compete, sought the eradication of old architectural styles. Most architects
practicing today have forgotten this, or ignore it, but it is an atavistic
feature, not a bug, of what was at first widely known as the International
Virtually all federal buildings erected today
are modernist, and have been for three-quarters of a century. Classical and
traditional architecture have been frowned upon since the post-war era by the
General Services Administration, which oversees the design, construction and
maintenance of federal offices and monuments throughout the country. The
proposed Trump order would specifically discourage, if not ban, modern
architecture. To most people, this looks like a long-overdue corrective. The
federal government was the last segment of U.S. society to abandon tradition in
its approach to architecture, and it would be pleasingly ironic were it to be
the first to re-embrace styles preferred by most American citizens. That would
make sense in a democracy.
A federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala.,
completed a few years ago, is one of the very few major works of classical
design to be sponsored by the GSA in decades. It is pictured atop this post.
Admit that you’ve not seen much of its caliber in eons.
A draft order is several stages away from an
accomplishment. During the administration of George W. Bush, classicist
professor Thomas Gordon Smith of Notre Dame’s school of architecture was
nominated to be the GSA’s chief architect. Heads exploded among the
architectoriate, and the nomination was swiftly withdrawn. It looks as if the
usual suspects are trying to gin up a similar campaign, which includes trying
to sully the reputations of fine organizations such as the National Civic Art
Society, which has been involved the the generation of the draft order.
Should there be an official style? Probably
not, but under the circumstances, where an elite establishment has dictated
federal style for generations, some sort of pushback is in order. If the system
of doling out major architectural commissions reflected a market approach to
economic choice, there would be no need for an “official” style. But there has
been an official style as long as most people can remember, and it has uglified
cities and towns since time immemorial. A federal boost for classicism would
not reverse that instantly, of course, but it would be a long-overdue start at
reintegrating beauty and civility into a field where education, journalism,
firms and every other aspect of city making have been the fiefdom of the few,
to the dismay of the many.
I will return to this discussion again, you may be sure. I have been wondering whether the Donald would play a role in architecture. Here is my Nov. 9, 2016 post “Vote’s “style wars” tea leaves.”
Photo: Federal Building and Courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Architect Magazine)
My 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 like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (401) 351-0457 https://architecturehereandthere.com/