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Top Photo: Image from ICAA course catalogue shows infinite variability of classicism.
(The last of three articles on classical architecture in federal buildings and how regulations are being addressed.)
The proposed executive order encouraging classical architecture for federal buildings in Washington and elsewhere, if adopted by President Trump, would replace Kennedy-era guidelines that have encouraged modern architecture for federal buildings since 1962. Enough time has passed to declare modern architecture a failed experiment in federal placemaking – it fails to promote the national dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability that are the four goals of the JFK guidelines.
To need an “official style” is surely regrettable, but we
already have one and the question is whether it is time to embrace a new one.
The National Civic Art Society, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that got
the ball rolling, is to be commended for its masterstroke in bringing the topic
to the public’s attention. Having Donald Trump’s name associated with this
initiative is problematic, but no more difficult than any effort to turn
federal design back to its traditional roots would be absent a connection to
Who should be credited is less important than whether the
initiative makes sense. The public prefers traditional to modernist forms of
architecture by large margins, and this is a democracy, so citizens deserve a
voice in the design of their surroundings that they have not had for decades,
if ever. This is especially so for federal government structures, which, more
than any others, are supposed to reflect the broader civic weal.
Modernists have been unable to articulate a defense of their
style for a very long time. They have not needed to. Modern architecture’s
representatives in the academy have had virtually total control of
architectural education for more than half a century. The architectural media
kowtow exclusively to the system of starchitecture that has dominated the
field, and refuse to demand an accounting from modernists, whether for
individual buildings or for the generally tedious built environment.
Threatened by the proposed executive order, they have hauled
out the usual old chestnuts: Classical architecture is to blame for World War
I! Classical architecture was the style of the Third Reich! New classical
buildings in the modern age are like doctors who still use bleeding to treat
patients, or, as a Washington Post editorial put it, “the architectural equivalent
of requiring federal workers to wear knee breeches and a tricorn hat.”
Most of those arguments could be knocked over by a barely
sentient fifth-grader. But a pair of related arguments is more serious and
proponents of the design change in federal architecture must address them
directly. These two arguments are that classical architecture stifles
innovation and that modern architecture is scientific.
In fact, recent scientific research backs up longstanding
assumptions that classical and traditional styles of architecture are closer
than modernist ones to nature, and that humans are naturally averse to modern
architecture. For example, Nikos Salingaros, a University of Texas professor of
mathematics, has identified processes in the development and articulation of
traditional architecture that resemble the biological processes of reproduction
and evolution. Ann Sussman, a Cambridge architect and design researcher, has
used eye-tracking technology to measure the extent to which the human eye
focuses in on ornament – especially shapes that bring the human face to mind –
and avoids the blank stretches that constitute so much of modern architecture.
Opponents of a return to classicism for federal architecture
declare that modernist innovation – exemplified by, perhaps, Brown University’s
Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, which looks like a gigantic accordion hit
by a major earthquake – would give way to the conformity of the classical
orders from ancient Greece and Rome. This concern is mere prejudice, springing
from a historically narrow definition of innovation and creativity.
Modern art and architecture advance by creative leaps that
seek to be unique in the history of a particular medium. Paintings where human
characteristics are represented by cubes, for example, or buildings whose
massing seems to defy gravity. Each artist distinguishes him or herself from
others by qualities that jump out at the observer.
Classical art and architecture, on the other hand, seek to
advance by steps that bring greater reach and effectiveness to the methods
common to a particular medium, such as, in painting, a new type of brush
stroke, a more realistic way of depicting human skin tones, or a new
composition for oil colors that dry more swiftly on canvas; or, in
architecture, a more coherent method of cornering Ionic columns in a portico,
or new techniques for measuring the effectiveness of angles by which pitched
roofs shed snow.
The mostly small, integrated advances of traditional
artistic endeavor add, year by year, to the virtuosity of each art, and the
ability to understand and enjoy them advances no faster, generally, than the
capacity of observers to perceive the advancements. In modern architecture the
cascading pace of advancement contributes to confusion and ennui in the built
environment, whereas in classical architecture the pace is slow, acting as an anchor
of stability as the pace of change speeds up in a scary world.
The draft executive order, by slowing down aesthetic change
in federal buildings, may contribute to a less chaotic and more orderly
constitutional republic, not to mention one whose beauty is more easily
comprehended by the broad mass of its citizens. The late Sir Roger Scruton
wrote that “the classical idiom does no so much impose unity as make diversity
Given trends in federal architecture today and the look of cities generally over the past half a century, the draft order may have the effect of slowing down the atrophy of our civic life, and an approaching authoritarianism in our governance. But don’t tell that to President Trump!
David Brussat – 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
or call 401-351-0457l or go to: https://architecturehereandthere.com/