Trump’s Beautiful Proposal for Federal Architecture

The classicists hope to address a problem that the architecture establishment does not see as a problem.

A postcard of the U.S. Capitol
Smith Collection / Gado / Getty

I hope members of the National Civic Art Society are just perverse enough to be rather pleased with themselves right about now. The NCAS is the group of activists behind the draft executive order informally called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The draft, which was leaked earlier this month to an architecture trade publication, strongly encouraged architects to adopt a classical style when they design federal courthouses and buildings in the nation’s capital. The Trumpian title of the order was itself a mischievous provocation, and the name hit the bull’s-eye.

The White House declined to say whether President Trump would sign the order or had even seen it. Yet the draft touched off panic attacks and furious denunciations from every corner of what is rightly termed the architecture establishment—a powerful agglutination of critics, urban planners, civil servants, reporters, publicists, corporate consultants, academics, and even some architects.

The denunciations were not a surprise, and neither was their unvarying line of argument and abuse: The critics called the NCAS and its leaders extremists, Nazis, white supremacists, and—this one must have really hurt—Republicans.

As in so many cultural disputes today, the debate over the draft order cuts deep, all the way down to first premises. The two sides use different languages to talk past each other (though only one side is calling the other Nazis). The classicists behind the draft order hope to address a problem that the architecture establishment does not see as a problem. The nonproblem problem is this: After World War II, the federal government adopted modernism in its many variations as a kind of house architectural style, and as a consequence has managed to build a very large number of unlovely buildings.

The FBI building.
The J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I Building in Washington, D.C. (Joyce Naltchayan / AFP via Getty)

Many of these structures now scar the otherwise classically designed streetscape of Washington, D.C. They include such infamous examples as the J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building, which is even more obnoxious than its namesake, along with the Hubert H. Humphrey Health and Human Services Building and the former Housing and Urban Development headquarters, which one former employee deathlessly described as “ten floors of basement.” The government has extended the reach of its bad taste beyond the capital and into the provinces, with federal courthouses that don’t embody the law’s majesty but instead express contempt for ordinary taste or, just as often, advertise the architect’s cleverness.

Why is this a problem? Willful, preventable ugliness is always a problem to one degree or another. Here the ugliness involves the self-conscious repudiation of commonly accepted notions of proportion, accessibility, appropriateness, and coherence. The problem doubles when the ugliness is created by government agencies spending the public’s money while in thrall to a special interest like the architecture establishment—in this case, the architects who design the government’s buildings, the critics who praise them, the academics who try to explain them, the trade associations that drape them in awards, and the wealthy civic boosters who like showing up for the ribbon cutting. Everyone wins except for the people who have to visit, work in, pay for, and look at the result.

The Seagram building
The Seagram Building in New York. (Independent Picture Service / Getty)

To supporters of the draft order, the solution to this problem is simple: The way to get people to stop constructing ugly public buildings with government money is to insist that they use government money to design handsome buildings instead. Great buildings, like great architects, are rare, but certain styles of architecture lend themselves to a higher level of tolerable mediocrity than others. In the now defunct International Style, for instance, there is a vertiginous drop-off in quality between the Seagram Building, which shows the style at its dazzling zenith, and the scores of hurried, ill-proportioned Seagram wannabes that have pockmarked the downtowns of every midsize American city since the early 1970s.

Supporters of the proposed executive order believe that classical architecture is closer to being idiot-proof. The style is much more likely to result in pleasing buildings, even when designed by less-than-first-rate practitioners. On his worst day—hungover, kids sick, car in the shop, wife not speaking to him—the least talented classical architect is unlikely to produce anything quite as forbidding and hostile to human life as, let’s say, the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall.

Classicism is also much more likely than the Hirshhorn’s brutalism or other postwar styles to produce a building admired by the public—the people who are, we shouldn’t forget, not merely the consumers but also the financial backers of government buildings. Although no truly definitive measures of the public’s taste in architecture exist, the American Institute of Architects conducted the closest thing to an authoritative poll of laymen in 2007. In the list of “150 favorite pieces of American architecture,” modernist buildings fared poorly; another 70 or so modern buildings that respondents considered didn’t crack the list at all. It’s safe to say public taste runs toward the traditional.

The larger purpose of the draft order is to enlist this popular preference in a project of civic renewal. “New Federal building designs,” the text reads, “should … inspire the public for their aesthetics [and] make Americans feel proud of our public buildings … Classical and traditional architectural styles have proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government.”

A couple of ironies are unmistakable here. Few public figures in memory have done more to demean the dignity and encourage the disrespect of government than Trump; signing the order would be at least a small gesture toward remediation. Meanwhile, the architecture establishment, which, like nearly all cultural organs, is squarely on the political left, might be expected to support a project meant to restore the public’s faith in “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability” of the federal government. (The quote is from the draft order, which in turn is quoting an older, largely ignored set of federal guidelines.) Isn’t an enterprising and vigorous government a progressive ideal? In the Trump era everybody is changing places.

One can legitimately argue with the order, beginning with the fact of the order itself. Even some traditionalists see unilateral executive action as a thick-fingered means to achieve the admirable goal of a more humane and welcoming built environment. Trump’s critics, who tend to see him as Il Duce with hair, go much further. The general accusation is that the proposed order is another sign of incipient fascism—“one of the most blatantly authoritarian things the government has yet attempted,” says Wired. The charge has grown ragged from overuse. More than half a century ago, the writer Jean-François Revel wondered why the dark night of fascism was always falling in the U.S. and yet lands only in Europe.

Not all the criticism has been supercharged. Many of the craftier critics assume a kind of eye-rolling world weariness: The debate between traditional and contemporary architecture is so … so … 1980s. I mean, Gawd. The NCAS and its supporters are living in the past, all right—not the Renaissance, but the Reagan era, when the neoclassical backlash against modernism seemed fresh. “Just to have this argument feels demeaning,” wrote the architecture critic for The New York Times. The order raises "issues most people simply don't argue about anymore," wrote The Washington Post's architecture critic. This debate, wrote a critic for New York magazine, “doesn’t really exist.”

Well, the debate looks pretty lively from here, if a bit one-sided. I think what the critics mean is that they thought this debate was over—and that the people who believe as they do had swept the field and sown it with salt so that no dissent could sprout again, ever. Then this little band of Trumpian pip-squeaks piped up with their draft order. The critics react to this brazen insolence much as the father in the Ring Lardner story responds to his talky, precocious child: “Shut up, he explained.”

Perhaps the frustration of the draft’s critics accounts for the misrepresentations and overstatements about what the order would actually do. The American Institute of Architects, in its statement, called it “one-size-fits-all”; The Dallas Morning News said, “The state [is] imposing its will on the creative freedom of its citizens.”

Anytime the government hires someone to do a job—even an architect—it imposes its will and limits his or her freedom. That’s one advantage to being an employer. Even so, the imposition in this case is limited. The draft reads: “Architectural styles—with special regard for the classical architectural style—that value beauty, respect regional architectural heritage, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles for applicable Federal buildings.” Other styles, such as the Mediterranean, the Spanish colonial, the Romanesque, and the Gothic, are explicitly encouraged, with latitude left for other styles to be used under “extenuating” circumstances. Only two styles, brutalism and deconstructivism, are excluded for federal buildings.

That’s a pretty big tent. Would the AIA and the other critics want the government to hire architects that don’t value beauty, ignore local heritage, and give the public the high hat?

Come to think of it, that’s what the government has been doing for more than 70 years.

No one knows whether Trump will care enough to read the draft, much less sign it. From the evidence of his buildings, Trump’s taste in architecture runs toward a gaudy modernism, far removed from the restrained and tasteful traditionalism that the order promotes. If he signs it, he will do so for one of two reasons: (1) He truly believes it will elevate the quality of federal architecture and thereby the general level of citizenship. (2) He doesn’t care one way or the other but knows it will send his enemies right around the bend.

I’m betting on No. 2. And they don’t have far to go.