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Why America Needs Classical Architecture

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Why America Needs Classical Architecture

The design of federal buildings should be guided by the traditional principles that produced our greatest civic landmarks. Summer 2019
Arts and Culture

Shortly after Donald Trump’s election and his own appointment as Uncle Sam’s chief architect, David Insinga cited his involvement with the design and construction of a federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as a formative experience. “It was the first project,” he told Architect magazine, “where I sat in on the interviews to select the architect and was able to see that entire process from beginning to end”—initially as a U.S. court system official and later at the General Services Administration (GSA), which serves, among other things, as the federal government’s real-estate developer, property manager, and landlord. Completed in 2012 and situated on a raised terrace beside the Cedar River, the building has as its signature component a somewhat concave, mainly glass-faced volume that screens the courtroom block behind it. To one side, the asymmetrically designed front’s shallow, flat roof is perched on tall, skinny metal posts that reference classical columns. A canopy slab wedged between two of them juts out to signal the entrance underneath. To the other side, the front is thinly clad in stone. In the glassy atrium hangs a 41-foot-tall, hourglass-shaped work of conceptual art in powder-coated steel, with silhouettes of human heads fixed within a three-dimensional openwork grid that contracts toward the middle.

It would be easy to mistake this courthouse, with its cryptic art installation, for a corporate headquarters, or maybe a medical science building. It does not evoke the majesty of the law. Nor does it “provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government”—the watchwords of the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future U.S. senator, drafted in 1962 while serving as a Kennedy administration aide.

On the other hand, the Cedar Rapids courthouse is certainly preferable, in architectural terms, to many others that the GSA has commissioned in recent years. A preposterous 14-story Miami structure completed in 2007, for instance, comprises a duo of concrete-framed, window-walled boxes raised on three-story limestone posts; they are separated on one axis by a breezeway and run through on the other by a mutant ship’s hull of blue glass that looms above them. More problematic, too, is the partially deconstructed Rubik’s Cube that serves as Austin’s U.S. courthouse; or the towering, green-glass structure laid out as a distorted “U” in Buffalo; or the cubic, über-minimalist courthouse annex in Salt Lake City. The Cedar Rapids edifice is also vastly preferable to the decade-old Federal Building in San Francisco, a billboard-like slab decked out in perforated metal. The same goes for the Brutalist concrete piles that the agency erected in our nation’s capital and elsewhere a generation ago, including the FBI’s famously hideous, shoddily built headquarters, located down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol.

While they lack the force of law, the Guiding Principles are “the foundation” of the GSA’s architectural patronage, Insinga declared in the Architect interview, insofar as they stipulate that “designs should be of their time . . . something we strongly encourage. We want to see new ideas and especially as sustainability becomes more important in our culture. We want to see creative ideas on how people can achieve reduction in energy use, water use, and waste.”

For the GSA, sustainability is not just a matter of dollars and cents or government mandates. As it is for the architectural establishment as a whole, sustainability is a religion. But the agency’s efforts to incorporate innovative green technologies into its buildings have not always worked out. More important, the most sustainable structures aren’t those that boast displacement ventilation, evaporative cooling, or photovoltaic cell–encrusted roofs that do double duty by harvesting rainwater to service toilets that gulp rather than flush. The most sustainable buildings will stand for a very long time because they are well built and because their design reflects enduring human preferences rather than stylistic fads.

GSA officials seldom talk about the architectural evocation of “dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability”—in other words, the vitally important symbolic role that federal architecture should play in the public square. Those watchwords went unmentioned in Insinga’s interview. The mentality of the GSA’s architectural bureaucracy and the modernist establishment of which it forms a part is reflected in comments on the Cedar Rapids courthouse from an American Institute of Architects (AIA) jury, which cited it for expressing “a democratic spirit of openness and approachability,” while noting that its “central atrium void, glazed and on axis with a city street, provides a sense of transparency.”

“Openness” and “transparency,” typically employed with the qualifier “democratic,” have been GSA watchwords for some time. But the monumental buildings that long typified American courthouse architecture are not notably open and transparent. Are they less democratic for that? Or was the AIA jury, however unconsciously, using the word “democratic” as cover for its elitist architectural pieties? “Transparency,” for example, would appear to serve as specious justification for the glassy buildings that modernist architects like to build but that don’t necessarily make sense in practical, let alone symbolic, terms. Two decades ago, the celebrated architect Richard Meier erected such a structure where common sense would suggest it least belongs—in the blazing-hot climate of Phoenix. Temperatures in the six-story-high atrium of Meier’s Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse can soar into the upper nineties, with the atrium’s evaporative cooling system mainly serving as a humidifier.

“Sustainability,” then, has joined “openness” and “transparency” in the trinity of architectural desiderata that most closely approximate the GSA’s true guiding principles. The agency provides workspace for 1.1 million federal employees from an inventory of owned and leased properties totaling 370 million square feet. It owns some 1,600 buildings outright and ranks as the nation’s most important architectural patron. With the inauguration of the Design Excellence program in 1994, the GSA aimed to raise its cultural profile and has since commissioned scores of buildings from prominent architects, including big names like Meier and Thom Mayne, architect of the aforementioned San Francisco Federal Building. The Cedar Rapids project involved a prestigious Boston firm, William Rawn Associates. Overall, however, the program’s results have been anything but excellent.

While proclaiming a worthy goal for the aesthetic and symbolic resonance of federal buildings, Moynihan’s Guiding Principles make its realization unlikely in the extreme. The trouble starts in the preamble of this 500-word document, with Moynihan serving up a famous quote from the Athenian statesman Pericles: “We do not imitate, for we are a model to others.” Moynihan imagined that American architects would find their own new path to the evocation of dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability. But Pericles was speaking not of architecture but of Athens’s democratic constitution. His city’s brilliant artistic achievements grew out of Hellenic tradition and were expressions of a broader Hellenic culture.

Moynihan went on to stipulate “the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” But what if contemporary American architectural thought wasn’t very fine? What if it really wasn’t American at all, but just a rehashing of bad ideas from the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier? What if there was radical disagreement about which mode of American architectural thought was finest? Moynihan waded deeper into the mire in declaring: “The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice-versa.” But why shouldn’t the client commissioning a building have the right to prescribe the style and design that he considers best?

The Guiding Principles also called for the incorporation of fine art, where appropriate, into the design of new buildings, “with emphasis on the work of living American artists.” The GSA accordingly requires at least 0.5 percent of the cost of its new construction and significant renovation projects to be steered to its Art in Architecture Program, which itself observes a no-official-style policy. In his superb book Art from the Swamp: How Washington Bureaucrats Squander Millions on Awful Art (2018), the late Bruce Cole, a distinguished art historian and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, showed the GSA’s artist-selection process to be “a convoluted mess of bureaucracy” that all too often favors trendy, unserious artists, thus leading the agency to commission “an inordinate amount of junk.”

The GSA’s principles, in short, have served to convert Uncle Sam from a patron into a victim. They should be rewritten—and, once rewritten, enforced.

The irony is that the words “dignity, vigor, enterprise, and stability” occurred to Moynihan thanks to America’s magnificent tradition of classical public architecture. Similarly, when he referred to an “official style,” he could only have had classicism in mind. The classical tradition is epitomized by the nation’s greatest building, the United States Capitol. The Capitol’s greatness lies in its architectural excellence, starting with the perfect proportional relationship between its majestic dome and subordinate masses; its appropriately sumptuous decoration; and its supremely dignified symbolic presence in the national consciousness. Everybody “gets” the Capitol at a gut level, just as they “get” the Statue of Liberty and the Lincoln Memorial.

Classicism shaped federal architecture until the Civil War. (The Capitol’s dome was completed in 1865.) After three decades mainly notable for a picturesque Victorian farrago of turrets, tourelles, mansards, crenellations, machicolations, pinnacles, and ironwork crestings—the logical consequence of the absence of an official style—a classical resurgence in the nation’s institutional architecture gathered momentum with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the most important architectural event in American history. The centerpiece of the exposition was the Court of Honor and its Grand Basin, with the Court flanked by large, richly decorated classical structures clad in plaster bonded with shredded hemp. The Court’s scenographic effect was overwhelming, and the fair attracted more than 27 million visitors over six months.

The classical idiom again dominated federal architecture from the mid-1890s until the 1930s. Building on the classical ideals of Washington and Jefferson, architects drew on Greco-Roman and Italian Renaissance precedents, the French academic tradition, and America’s colonial heritage, both British and Hispanic. As with the U.S. Capitol, sculpture and painting had prominent roles in the grandest federal structures of this period, such as the Alexander Hamilton Custom House (1907) in lower Manhattan. For the front of this majestic building, the sculptors Daniel Chester French and Adolph Weinmann designed four monumental groups as allegories of the four continents.

The vast, 75-acre Federal Triangle complex situated immediately north of the Mall in Washington was the last great expression to date of the urban ideal that emerged at the Chicago fair. It was the brainchild of Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon, who served under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover and whose department had been responsible for erecting federal courthouses, post offices, and customhouses since 1852. The Triangle includes two particularly fine works completed in 1935: the Interdepartmental Building, by the brilliant San Francisco architect Arthur Brown, Jr.; and John Russell Pope’s National Archives. Decades later, and with Senator Moynihan’s fulsome support, the Triangle’s final component, the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (1998), was completed. This 3.1-million-square-foot behemoth, the second-largest federal building after the Pentagon, features a meretricious rendition of the classical forms that define the Triangle, while its footprint creates a disfigured four-acre courtyard that is a travesty of the originally envisioned Great Plaza. (The design was chosen not by the GSA but by another federal entity, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation.)

In the run-up to World War II, federal buildings generally became less ornate and more streamlined, as modern styles such as art deco emerged. When it appeared, decoration was more expressionistic, as with the lumpen monumentality of sculptural compositions or the social realism of murals commissioned by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. After the war, a break with tradition was ensured when the GSA assumed control of Uncle Sam’s civilian architectural endeavors upon its creation in 1949. Federal architecture was now in the hands of a procurement agency responsible for supplying the government with furniture, adding machines, and mops.

The decades following World War II represent the classical tradition’s low-water mark in this country. Only a week before the Guiding Principles’ promulgation, President Kennedy presided at the cornerstone ceremony for the stripped-classical Rayburn House Office Building—a boxy, unanimated edifice compared with the very fine House and Senate office buildings in its vicinity. (The Rayburn project, however, was mishandled by an Architect of the Capitol who wasn’t even an architect.) Moynihan looked to the modernist architectural establishment that had taken root in the U.S. during the Depression to develop fresh alternatives to a supposedly exhausted tradition.

The Federal Building in San Francisco, a billboard-like slab decked out in perforated metal (ARCAID IMAGES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

But the Rayburn compares favorably with legions of buildings that the GSA has erected since the adoption of the Guiding Principles. A great many of these structures, it is true, are just banal renditions of corporate modernist styles, a conspicuous example being the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building (1969) facing Foley Square in lower Manhattan, which might as well have been designed for a data-processing company. For the record, the most infamous product of the GSA’s Art in Architecture Program, Richard Serra’s 120-foot-long, 12-foot-tall Tilted Arc (1981) of rusting COR-TEN steel, was installed in and, after a long legal battle, removed from a plaza outside the Javits building. The government’s space demands had increased enormously by the time this edifice went up. But a high-rise structure can take the form of a monumental base surmounted by a recessed tower of complementary design—which happens to be the case with the august Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse (1936), originally known as the Foley Square Courthouse.

While commissioning buildings that, like the Javits, signally failed to live up to Moynihan’s watchwords, the GSA also ran afoul of the Guiding Principles’ call for “[s]pecial attention to be paid to the general ensemble of streets and public places of which federal buildings will form a part.” Nothing could be more antithetical to that guideline than the Brutalist headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (1968), a ponderously diagrammatic fusion of curved concrete volumes perched on Corbusian stilts known as pilotis—and memorably described by Jack Kemp, President George H. W. Bush’s HUD secretary, as “ten floors of basement.” In a 2003 publication devoted to its earlier modernist projects, however, the GSA praised this dreadful edifice (and itself) for “taking the lead in construction in the District of Columbia’s Southwest Washington Development Area,” thereby symbolizing “the federal government’s commitment to urban renewal across the nation”—as if this were something to boast about.

The HUD building does indeed make a signal contribution to a vast panorama of desolation all too typical of the nation’s urban-renewal misadventures of the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise all too typical was the Southwest Washington urban-renewal campaign’s leveling of 400 acres and “forced removal,” according to the standard history of urban planning in the nation’s capital, “of 23,500 people, of whom 76 percent were black residents.” On the other hand, a top-of-the-line GSA project from the 1960s, Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center in Chicago’s Loop, raises serious issues of appropriateness. The agency regards this complex, which includes a 1.2-million-square-foot office high-rise, a courthouse slab, and a one-story post office, as a masterpiece in glass and black steel. The Federal Center plaza also boasts Alexander Calder’s flaming-red, 53-foot-high, abstract-expressionist steel sculpture, Flamingo (1974). Flamingo is unquestionably a far more popular landmark than Tilted Arc, but is it a civic landmark? The Federal Center’s combination of rigidly rectilinear, unornamented architecture with eye-popping abstract sculpture is a familiar modernist formula, but one far better suited to the high-end corporate world and its promotion of itself as culturally au courant.

Many of the buildings that the Design Excellence program has produced are postmodern structures that, like the Reagan building, engage traditional forms and styles to some degree. The Theodore Roosevelt U.S. Courthouse in Brooklyn (2006) is a thoughtfully composed high-rise that ranks among the best in this category. Its iconoclastic opposite is the federal office building completed in San Francisco in 2007. The GSA has never publicized a building erected under its Design Excellence program more effusively than Thom Mayne’s weird creation. It is the only building to which the agency devoted one of its lavishly self-congratulatory Design Excellence booklets—modestly titled A Model of Excellence—even before it was built. Mayne’s unexcellent building features a strikingly shallow, window-walled concrete slab 18 stories high separated by several feet, on its main southern elevation, from a perforated-metal wrapping. A slash in the wrapping points to a large upper-level void featuring a light show by conceptual artist James Turrell. Rumpled folds of the perforated metal and the steel armature supporting it extend, uselessly, into a stark plaza and crown a concrete pillbox of a café. The extravagantly eccentric construction system was justified on energy-conservation grounds. But the structural pyrotechnics really boil down to the modernist obsession with reinventing the wall.

The AIA’s San Francisco chapter promptly bestowed an Honor Award for Excellence in Architecture on Mayne’s contraption. “It may one day be remembered as the crowning achievement of GSA’s Design Excellence Program,” a bedazzled New York Times critic enthused. Those who worked in the building had a different take. They resented elevators that stopped at every third floor and the need to step outside the slab to get a bite to eat, thanks to the architect’s condescending determination that they needed more exercise and chance encounters with colleagues. Temperature control and sunlight glare were also problems. Mayne’s building finished dead last in a 2010 GSA-commissioned survey gauging worker satisfaction with 22 buildings that the agency had built or renovated in recent years with sustainability in mind. The plaza in front was supposed to improve street life in a troubled neighborhood but has proved, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle, “a virtual moat, with little activity except the swirl of windblown trash.”

Or consider the U.S. courthouse annex in Salt Lake City (2015), an updated rendition of the glass box by another fashionable architect, Thomas Phifer. In the GSA monograph devoted to his opus—which garnered a national AIA Honor Award—Phifer declared: “We believe that rather than use the classical elements that Jefferson brought to America from Europe, people should experience a contemporary justice that is open, transparent, and light-filled.” There they go again with the “openness” and “transparency” riff. It hasn’t registered with the locals, who have dubbed this forbidding edifice the Borg Cube, after the evil Star Trek aliens and their cubic spaceship. Now Los Angeles has a spanking new, AIA-award-winning Borg Cube courthouse of its own: a ten-story box of pleated glass perched on a deeply recessed limestone base. Toledo, Ohio, will soon boast yet another—this one intended, according to the GSA, to “pay tribute to Toledo’s historic role in the nation’s glass industry.” Is that really what a courthouse should do? As for Phifer’s facile dismissal of the European origins of Jefferson’s architecture, it overlooks the wholly European origins of his own idiom, grounded in reductionist theories dating back to the French Enlightenment.

In truth, architects like Mayne and Phifer are not fundamentally concerned with civic ideals. They cater to quintessentially private sensibilities that regard architecture in subjective, emotivist terms. They have no business designing federal buildings.

A U.S. courthouse should embody the architectural wisdom of the ages, not ephemeral notions of “contemporary justice.” Design Excellence buildings run the gamut from pathologically fragmented structures to the hyper-simplistic unity of the Borg Cubes (which are better suited to modernist art museums). A vast formal gulf separates Mayne’s structural histrionics from Phifer’s anorexic minimalism, while their buildings diverge not only from the banal corporate modernism of the Cedar Rapids edifice but also from the neo-Brutalism of the courthouse pile that the GSA has inflicted on Fresno, California, and from the postmodern incorporation of various historical references in other federal structures. We’re witnessing yet another stylistic farrago, this one much more toxic than its Victorian antecedent.

The GSA’s preoccupation with making architectural fashion statements may have also contributed to a blinkered approach to project management. The agency “does not estimate most O&M [operations and maintenance] costs during planning and design,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded in a May 2018 report. The GAO surveyed 78 Design Excellence buildings, including 62 courthouses, erected at a cost of $8.1 billion. It projects that O&M costs could account for 55 percent, or $9.9 billion, of an estimated $18 billion spent on these buildings over a life span averaging 60 years.

This deficiency has prevented the GSA from learning from its mistakes, the report notes. Thus, 67 of the 78 Design Excellence buildings were equipped with multistory open spaces—including glassy atria, entrance pavilions, and lobbies—which increased O&M costs, thanks to difficulties with cleaning and heating and cooling, and with leaky ceilings requiring expensive scaffolding or mechanical lifts to repair. In addition, building managers at 32 Design Excellence buildings reported that inefficiently located mechanical systems led to increased repair and energy costs. Nineteen buildings with sustainability-oriented components such as solar panels and green roofs experienced increased O&M costs. Green roofs proved leak-prone, and solar panels didn’t always supply as much power as anticipated. Radiant cooling in one courthouse’s lobby floor hadn’t even been activated because the system was too expensive to operate and, according to GSA officials, “should not have been installed.”

A resolutely countercultural community of classical architects has emerged in the United States in recent decades. Nowadays, however, our classicists face overwhelming indifference, if not outright opposition, within the academy and from the AIA and the legacy media. Uncle Sam needs to put these classicists to work—not only on new buildings but on the classically informed reconfiguration, wherever possible, of its many modernist structures in need of renovation. Moynihan’s Guiding Principles should be rewritten with a view to setting federal patronage apart from the anomie of our postmodern culture. They should affirm that classicism is the government’s “official style,” insofar as it has far outshone any other in shaping buildings that reflect “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.” Not every new edifice has to be classical, but this should be the default idiom nurturing an appropriately legible and symbolically resonant federal architecture.

The decoration of new government structures with sculpture and painting should be an integral part of their design. It should involve, as Moynihan indicated, living American artists. The reformed guidelines should require such decoration to entail the competent rendering of natural forms and of the human figure above all, as it is the supreme symbolic entity in art. Emphasis should be placed on portrayals of historical personages and events, along with the ideals that have shaped our nation and that register with normal people, as opposed to postmodern deipnosophists.

Mainly thanks to pushback from resolute judges and at least one U.S. senator, the GSA in recent years has commissioned a limited number of modern classical buildings, including three Alabama courthouses—in Mobile, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa. The Mobile and Tuscaloosa buildings make appropriately monumental use of Doric columns. Deracinated colonnades “evoking” the classicism of historic courthouses are a well-worn postmodern theme. Such colonnades figure conspicuously in jumbled U.S. courthouse agglomerations of recent vintage in places like Springfield, Massachusetts; Gulfport, Mississippi; and Billings, Montana, as well as the Cedar Rapids courthouse. The approach taken at Mobile and Tuscaloosa is vastly preferable.

But the Alabama courthouses are drops in the bucket. The design of federal buildings should be guided by consistent criteria. If the GSA has shown itself incapable of implementing Moynihan’s guidelines, it can hardly be expected to carry out an explicitly classical agenda. Nor does it make sense for a gigantic procurement agency to control the design and decoration of new or renovated federal buildings. A new federal entity outside the GSA should be created to implement the reformulated guidelines.

Perhaps, as a real-estate developer, President Trump might appreciate the richness of America’s heritage of classical public buildings. It’s not inconceivable that he would support reform of the Guiding Principles. Otherwise, U.S. senators and representatives should do all they can to ensure that classical principles guide future federal architecture projects. In doing so, they will be contributing to a renewal of American civilization.

Top Photo: The new U.S. courthouse in Mobile, Alabama, evokes the classical tradition in federal architecture, making appropriately monumental use of Doric columns. (HARTMAN-COX ARCHITECTS)

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