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Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Trump Administration and the New Architects of Fear

Of all the things the Trump administration has done, maybe rewriting the guidelines for the architecture of federal buildings doesn’t seem as high-impact as, say, putting kids in border camps or failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the relationship between a government and the built environment is as important, physically, as the one it has to the natural one. The buildings in which governing takes place are also representative of that governing.

So the scoop last week saying that the feds’ plan to switch all federal architecture to “classical”—like a Greek temple, basically—might be one of the most blatantly authoritarian things the government has yet attempted.

According to a draft executive order obtained by Cathleen McGuigan, editor of Architectural Record, the General Services Administration—the arm of the executive branch that runs the real estate—is planning to discard its half-century-old philosophy for designing federal buildings. No more big-shot contemporary architects designing weirdo courthouses. No more Morphosis designing a sandcrawler-esque San Francisco Federal Building or Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects building a stripes-and-cutouts cube for a US courthouse in Austin. On Wednesday the Chicago Sun-Times posted the actual memo, titled “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” It mandates new architectural review panels, specifically bans brutalism and deconstructivism as architectural styles, and calls for new buildings to have a look “derived from the forms and principles of classical Roman and Greek architecture, and as later employed by such Renaissance architects as Michelangelo and Palladio.” The GSA’s famous Design Excellence Program, which since 1994 has tried to put contemporary art and architecture into government, will itself be deconstructed.

McGuigan also reports that David Insinga, the GSA’s chief architect and head of the Design Excellence Program, has resigned. The GSA’s press office declined to confirm this, referring me instead to the White House.

The guidelines for federal architecture date back to a 1962 report to President John F. Kennedy. A memo by a young staffer named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, called “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” laid down the new ideas for the New Frontier. Federal buildings had to pay “visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government,” but they should also “embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Perhaps most importantly, Moynihan wrote that there’d be no “national style.” Nothing mandated. Designs would be fresh, new, regional, authentic—democratic, even.

As Karen Patricia Heath wrote in a 2017 article on the principles, government architecture had until that point been content to let form follow function, hard. They were pragmatic and not showy. But in the 19th century, neoclassicism was a dominant style overall, especially for institutions that wanted to convey stolidity and reliability by alluding to the beginnings of (European) civilization, as McGuigan also writes. It made sense that the US government would use it in Washington, DC, and for monuments. Heath writes that Kennedy didn’t care much about culture, but his advisers and his elite base did, and the idea of turning federal buildings into a showcase for American art and architecture fit with the whole Camelot thing. Moynihan went on to become a UN ambassador and senator from New York. His guiding principles became the central narrative of the GSA and a kind of polestar for US architects.

That philosophy resulted in a country full of strange, modern buildings, but it didn’t make traditionalists happy. Organizations like the National Civic Art Society led battles against more outré expressions of contemporary art on federal property. In 2019 the critic Catesby Leigh wrote “Why America Needs Classical Architecture” for City Journal, arguing that glassy modernism, slab-sided brutalism, and janky deconstructivism don’t have the dignity with which a government should comport itself. He calls the Austin courthouse a Rubik’s Cube and the San Francisco building “billboard-like.”

Which, I mean, OK—aesthetics are subjective. The president, himself a real estate developer, is famous for a certain overstuffed marble-and-gold vibe—a poor architect’s idea of a rich building, to paraphrase Fran Leibowitz. Like Leigh, I’ve never been a fan of the San Francisco Federal Building. But I like the Austin cube, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Leigh goes off the rails when he says modernist pioneer Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center in Chicago “raises serious issues of appropriateness” and that its arcing red Alexander Calder sculpture is “better suited to the high-end corporate world and its promotion of itself as culturally au courant.” When he knocks an Iowa courthouse as looking too much like a medical science building to “evoke the majesty of the law,” he loses me utterly. It’s not clear to me that government is manifestly more majestic than science. I have a bias. So do we all.

It’s also fair to say that the Design Excellence Program produced buildings that got pushback. The National Civic Arts Society points to decades of local resistance. (Its adherents now include three Trump appointees on the committee that watchdogs Washington, DC, architecture.) When it comes to architecture, people tend to resist change. Today’s architectural climate lets people fight affordable housing by citing “neighborhood character” and landmarking gas stations and midcentury commodity fire stations. They’ll find new architectural value in buildings that got as much resistance when they were built as any of the GSA’s Design Excellence courthouses. If Boston’s brutalist City Hall is worth “reconsideration,” anything will be someday.

What’s Leigh’s answer to all that? Well, it’s Greek to him. Specifically, the columns, capitals, domes, pediments, and cornices of neoclassicism—all the things that made capitol buildings seem so trustworthy (until the Gilded Age) and Main St. bank buildings seem so permanent and reliable (until the Depression).

Arguably neoclassicism had its apotheosis at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, at which a cabal of the country’s best architects and designers collaborated on a grand plaza of matched buildings that’d be seen by millions. The exposition set the tone for the City Beautiful movement for decades.

It was also mostly a lie, based on a misunderstanding, designed to bolster a hegemony. The buildings were intentionally impermanent, built on the same metal frameworks that all the great European world’s fairs were. Think Eiffel Tower, but flimsier and more flammable. And over that the Chicago designers applied facades made mostly of a moldable, reinforced plaster material called staff. It was theater, no more classical than Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. And it was all painted bright white—to look like Roman ruins, but also to subtly reinforce the authoritarian themes of the expo, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of European arrival in North America and the fulfillment of America’s manifest destiny. All the international, multiethnic, multicolored vernacular architecture got banished to the midway. The main Court of Honor, meant to represent the coming American century, was white … literally, symbolically, and metaphorically.

Daniel Burnham, the architect who laid out the plan for Chicago, led the exposition’s design. The decision to paint it all white seems to have been his, though the adoption of neoclassicism was a team effort. This was a crowd of the most forward-thinking architects working at the time, the inventors of the skyscraper, modernists who were advocating the use of local materials. Burnham’s friend and partner John Root sketched more Moorish, reddish ideas in early meetings, but he died during the planning process. Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace, did the landscape at the exposition, and when he saw the all-white, all-temple plan coming together, he quickly ordered more trees—the classic passive-aggressive move of landscapers when working near an ugly building.

In fact, the best building at this festival of aspirational American respectability was the one that wasn’t neoclassical, and wasn’t white. It was Louis Sullivan’s wild, polychromic Transportation Building. His reds and golds were the most exuberant thing there. No wonder Sullivan—who coined the phrase “form follows function,” by the way—ratted out Burnham’s crew. He said they were “strutting and prattling handcuffed and vainglorious in the asylum of a foreign school.”

American civic architecture got sidetracked into neoclassicism for decades by the fair—but the best American architects didn’t take the bait. Frank Lloyd Wright, an American architect who many people agree was pretty good, hated all the neoclassicism—his favorite buildings at the fair were Sullivan’s Transportation Building and the Japanese pavilion. Neoclassicism was “a mode of architecture which was little but veneer,” wrote the critic Lewis Mumford in 1924. “Correct in proportion, elegant in detail, courteous in relation to each other, the buildings of the World’s Fair were, nevertheless, only the simulacra of a living architecture.”

Even the fetishization of white and whiteness was nonsense. By the 1890s architects and designers knew that Greek and Roman buildings and sculptures had not been all white; that was just an artifact of their age and material. Like Sullivan’s building, they were riotously colored, almost garish. Neoclassicism was an empty symbol of a fictional past, literally whitewashed. Well, not literally, because whitewash is calcium oxide and marble is calcium carbonate, and the fair’s staff was probably painted with white lead. But you get what I mean.

Neoclassicism was fundamentally inauthentic, a facadism that pretended to represent glory and truth. That might be why, in the 1930s and 1940s, it became the house style for Albert Speer, official architect of the Nazi government.

It's the kind of association that usually turns people off—but not the Trump administration’s would-be aesthetic guardians. Their neo-neoclassicism gets to pretend to recall the glory of Greece and Rome in the service of symbolizing a hegemonic world power. It also winks even harder at an America before women and people of color could vote. It turns up its Roman nose at the modernists’ hope for authentic, local materials expressing their fundamental essence; at the Prairie School’s pragmatic, ecologically aware eaves; at the prefab ornamentation of Arts and Crafts; at Hugh Ferris megalopolises and Broadway boogie-woogie modernism … the hell with all that American stuff. Make it look like a bank. Make it look rich, jowly, pasty-faced, and fat. Let the sound of a thousand harrumphs echo amid cigar smoke.

Actually, forget about the aesthetics. State mandates for what counts as culture are always signs of creeping authoritarianism—banning architectural styles comes from the same file as banning books and declaring paintings degenerate. The most important part of what the GSA did with federal buildings was not dictating how they’d look. It embraced the idea that in a representative democracy, artists should have the power to constantly re-create the stories we tell about ourselves. As the American Institute of Architects put it in a statement this week, “Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.” Redefine what government looks like again and again as the world changes, and you embody the chaos and hope of democracy. Mandate a single architecture, no matter which one, and democracy, history, and the law become a facade; underneath is an infrastructure of fear.

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