NOTE: This article was written in February 2020 in response to the proposed Executive Order but was unpublished at that time. I have posted it here to provide reference to July 2020 bill which has been introduced to codify the GSA’s 1962 design standards and prevent their update by executive orders.
This month the Trump administration managed what only the disastrous fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame possibly do, to launch architecture from the culture section to the front page of the press. A draft executive order “Making Federal Architecture Beautiful Again” was leaked to the press that would would re-establish classical architecture as the “default and preferred” style of architecture of the federal government.
While the press pounced on the order as yet another sign of the president turning America into a fascist dictatorship (since Mussolini and Hitler instituted architectural norms as well), it nevertheless has provoked a larger debate about the nature and role of architecture in the political world. People in the political world are now asking: Does architecture matter? If it does, then why should classical architecture have a pride of place in American civic architecture?
The Founders of the United States were scholars of political history and philosophy, and throughout their deliberations sought precedent and examples of good government, but also to legitimize the new republic by connecting it to the best of the ideals of the ancient republics, and thus found in Rome apt precedent. America would parallel the course of Rome, who like America, rejected the tyranny of a king and formed a representative Republic of citizens. In architecture, the nascent republic found an apt symbol for this connection, strengthened and solidified by the adoption the Roman classical architecture. Already popular since the Renaissance, Thomas Jefferson was able to make this connection explicit in design for the capitol of Virginia modeled directly on a Roman temple, the Maison Carrée. Classical architecture became in the American consciousness to represent in stone the Founding and the political ideals of the republic, of representative government and the rule of law.
Walking about the center of any town in America built before World War II and within a few minutes the town hall, the library and the county courthouse become instantly recognizable. Usually these civic buildings are sited on a park or square but are also recognizable by their distinct and dignified classical architecture. For over 150 years civic buildings would typically be identified by a pedimented portico of columns or other classical motifs and even today, classicism is idiomatic for civic architecture in America.
Philosophically, classical architecture is less about the presence of particular architectural motifs, pediments, columns etc) as a reliance upon unchanging principles of the natural world of symmetry, order and proportion. The classical building expresses symmetry, just as the human body does. Order in that each part is recognizable and internally rational. Proportion in that each part of a classical building not only has an internal order in itself, but also stands in harmony to all the others.
Statesmanship classically has the same sort of understanding of order and proportionality. Justice is the giving to each his due in order to establish a well-ordered society, all of which exists according to the nature of mankind. An American classical civic building, by its very appearance, thus not only alludes to the Founding, but refers to those eternal and unchanging principles inherent in mankind of order and justice.
Modernism however turned all this on its head. Modernism contended that since the Industrial Revolution the nature of man had radically changed, and thus a radical new “Machine Aesthetic” was required. Stripped of historical motifs and old ideas of harmony and proportion, Modernist architecture was to be an entirely ex-nihilo creation from the mind of the architect and based on rational “scientific” principles.
Echoing the rationalist vision of the French Revolution, which sought to remake the state and culture entirely, Modernist architecture adopted a similarly draconian scorched earth policy toward civic architecture. Entire city centers were torn down and replaced with Brutalist behemoths civic centers like the Empire State Plaza, which despite the lofty predictions of a new utopia instead became barren wastelands avoided at all cost.
The Modernist experiment was a failure, but rather than learning from their mistakes and returning to their roots, Post-Modernism doubled down on the failure and rejected the idea of order, natural, scientific or otherwise entirely. Post-Modernist, or Deconstructivist architecture is entirely hostile beauty and order, and furthermore seeks to criticize and upend, to make it’s unfortunate occupant “uncomfortable.” In both, the citizen is not comforted by beauty, but rather is alienated by ugliness.
In the the Miami Federal Courthouse exemplifies the sort of anodyne glass and steel modernist architecture that alienates and confuses the public. Ten stories of concrete clad in undulating panels of blue glass, and surrounded by meandering sidewalk paths, there are no visual clues to tell the citizen that this is a courthouse other than a miserable concrete sign along the street. Any allusion to the founding principles of order, justice and participation are impossible in such bland and corporate architecture. The citizen walking up to this building is not filled with a sense of connection to a larger political order, or citizenship, but rather is an impersonal number in a corporate machine.
San Francisco Federal building is even worse, rather than just ignoring the citizen, it instead actively says to the viewer “you’re not welcome here.” Ten years after its construction, which was feted with copious awards from the architectural press, the courtyard in front of the building, walled off by truck barriers, remains a desolate eroded expanse inhabited only by the homeless, and the café, meant to be a focus for street life is a failure as an ugly unlovable space. Modernism doesn’t treat a person as a citizen, but as a customer, or worse, as a threat. What sort of citizen comes out of such a place?
American civic architecture should reflect our founding principles, but like civic architecture around the world, should also foster a genuine place for human community and connection. This is the ideal of the polis, that mankind is by his nature a social and political creature, that architecture should serve to bind the community together, to provide both a physical place to gather, either in the local town square or the National Mall, but also an expression of those ideals, beautiful and dignified, a gift to the citizenry.
Modern architecture does none of these things though. Instead of creating the necessary material place for this to occur, it actively works against them. Classicism is not simply a reactionary and quixotic yearning for the past, but rather is the understanding that people need to have a home, connection and society to make it possible to reach for their ultimate common good.