Modernist architecture answers to a cloistered elite—it’s time for a change.
Whatever the fate of a proposed executive order designating the classical and other traditional architectural styles as America’s “preferred” modes for courthouses and office buildings, while elevating classicism to the status of “default” style for federal buildings in our nation’s capital, the controversy it has aroused demonstrates the intellectual and aesthetic bankruptcy of the status quo. Critics of the proposed order, like the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin, appeal to “diversity,” but what they champion is a half-century or more of stylistic confusion that has far more to do with the arrogance of our cultural elites than grassroot sentiment.
“What’s So Great About Fake Roman Temples?” the New York Times editorial page asked last weekend, in its broadside against the White House proposal. Do people really think of the U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court, or National Archives buildings in Washington, not to mention the White House, Union Station, Corcoran Gallery of Art, or the Lincoln or Jefferson Memorials in that way? True, they all employ the classical formal vocabulary, though in distinctive ways. One must drink deeply from the chalice of politically correct, art-historical Kool-Aid to regard them as “fake Roman temples.”
“The problem with the [White House] proposal,” Kamin wrote this week, “isn’t classicism. It’s the imposition of classicism and other traditional styles from a single central authority, a move that would undercut the very democratic ideals that classicism is supposed to represent.” His argument makes no sense. He emphasizes the ban on “development of an official style” in Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1962 “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” But in stipulating that “[d]esign must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, not vice-versa,” Moynihan entrusted federal architecture to an unelected elite. What’s democratic about that? The General Services Administration, which oversees the design and construction of federal buildings, is part of the executive branch. It’s perfectly democratic for a duly elected president to mandate the reform of the government’s architectural patronage in order to reestablish a legible and symbolically appropriate federal presence in the nation’s public realm.
Kamin avers that “official styles were for the totalitarian governments America was fighting during the Cold War era of the 1960s. The [P]rinciples, in contrast, equated democratic freedom with architectural pluralism: Federal buildings should reflect regional architectural traditions and, by implication, the diverse character of the American people.” Of course, classicism has always lent itself to stylistic inflections that reflect regional traditions, and Moynihan wouldn’t even have mentioned that criterion but for long-established precedent in the nation’s institutional and domestic architecture.
Moreover, for decades following the Principles’ promulgation, Federal buildings tended to be almost undistinguishable from the generic and anodyne structures erected by private corporations. This includes Kamin’s beloved Federal Center in Chicago. Designed by Mies van der Rohe, the Federal Center is arguably the best example of federal architecture of the Cold War period—and that’s the problem. The aesthetically reductionist box, whether tower or horizontally oriented slab, constituted our official style, supplemented by some high-profile structures designed in the universally reviled (except by architects and critics) Brutalist idiom. The Guiding Principles did not unleash a wave of diversity, but rather a wave of depressing, inhuman architecture.
Kamin fails to recognize that the Miesian modernism he admires, including the Richard J. Daley Center skyscraper (1965) by Mies’s pupil Jacques Brownson, cannot serve as a default idiom for the creation of a satisfying urban environment. It cannot create a superbly monumental urban canyon like the classical frontages along Chicago’s LaSalle Street, which Kamin justly praises. Imagine LaSalle Street lined with Miesian boxes; it would be an urban desert. On Manhattan’s Park Avenue, a cluster of knock-offs near Mies’s Seagram Building (1958) is widely acknowledged to have degraded its setting. The diagrammatic Brownson box at the Daley Center has an essentially parasitic relationship to its surroundings, and particularly to the classical City Hall (1911) that it faces. The Brownson building exploits City Hall’s august formal vocabulary as a crutch for its own formal impoverishment, an all-too-familiar trick in modernist architecture.
Moynihan himself was aware of the underlying issues. Whatever hopes he may have entertained that his Guiding Principles would inspire architectural evocation, in new modes, of the federal government’s “dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability” were soon disappointed. In 1970, he lamented the fact that “[t]wentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.”
In 1994, GSA launched the Design Excellence program to improve Uncle Sam’s architectural game. The program’s upshot has been a series of architectural failures in a wide variety of modernist architectural flavors—Kamin’s “diversity” in action, in other words. These debacles reflect modernism’s chronic stylistic instability, its ongoing failure to generate a normative, enduring idiom. Modernism is not about norms; it’s about negation, about architecture that is simply not traditional. Fortunately, and often due to pressure from powerful politicians like Alabama’s Richard Shelby, now chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, small allowance has been made for classical courthouses. And a small number of decent postmodern courthouses, reflecting a more serious engagement with architecture’s history, have been built.
But Kamin insists that federal architecture isn’t so much about style, not to speak of formal norms, as it is about “function, security, sustainability, and compatibility with a specific site, climate, and culture.” Over many hundreds of years, of course, classical buildings have proved adaptable to different social, geographic, and technological conditions. And even if El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico, can now claim bizarre U.S. courthouse agglomerations in what has been dubbed a “Deconstructed Adobe” style, it’s extremely doubtful that these buildings are doing the regional culture any favors. Very little attention was evidently given to “regional architectural traditions” or compatibility with the local climate in the design of Richard Meier’s glassy U.S. courthouse in Phoenix (2000), famous not for its decidedly exogenous architecture but for the sweltering heat in its extravagantly spacious atrium. And what does celebrity architect Thom Mayne’s discombobulated San Francisco Federal Building (2007) have to do with regional architectural traditions or local climate, which his design conspicuously failed to accommodate? Kamin can forget about community input so far as this and many other Design Excellence projects are concerned. The bottom line is that Mayne was a favorite of the Design Excellence program’s initiator, Ed Feiner.
We’ll pass over the curious new blue-glassy, neo-Brutalist Corbuncle (as in “Le Corbusier” and “carbuncle”) in Miami; a lofty pile of green glass in Buffalo in the shape of a bisected ellipse, with an adjacent pie-slice-shaped glass pavilion; or the depressingly boxy courthouse in Orlando, whose construction two federal judges who had served on the architect-selection panel sued unsuccessfully to prevent, on grounds that the selection process was rigged. The Times editorial advertises the Miami Corbuncle, but Kamin is more restrained, lauding instead the new federal office building in Oklahoma City (2005). This structure’s fragmented envelope is pierced by an elliptically curving glass wall terminated by a pie-slice portico sporting an array of skinny stilts. The portico is bling masquerading as symbolism. This is pretentious corporate architecture that would fit right into a suburban office park and bears no vital relationship to the nation’s tradition in federal architecture.
That tradition is predominantly classical. This official style was acknowledged by the government’s senior architect, then employed by the Treasury Department, in a 1901 report. He wrote: “The Department . . . decided to adopt the classic style of architecture for all buildings as far as it was practicable to do so, and it is believed that this style is best suited for Government buildings. The experience of centuries has demonstrated that no form of architecture is so pleasing to the great mass of mankind as the classic, or some modified form of the classic.” As I recently explained in City Journal, the classical idiom engages us as embodied beings, rendering its idealization of structure symbolically resonant. This is why, in a 2007 AIA poll ranking the public’s favorite 150 buildings, John Russell Pope’s classical West Building at the National Gallery of Art ranked high, while I.M. Pei’s abstract and fragmented East Building (which modernist critics love) didn’t even make the cut.
Pope’s building speaks to people. It ennobles the art within. Kamin takes me to task for saying that modernist government buildings “fail to speak to the aspirations of ordinary citizens,” but my reply would be, first, to point to my imaginary Miesian LaSalle Street cityscape. What modernist could have created the enthralling vistas classically oriented architects created there? Not one. What modernist architect, or team of modernist luminaries, could give us the equivalent of a U.S. Capitol? We need to bear in mind that classicism is hardwired to engage the public at large, while modernism is more attuned to private sensibilities and personal identity. Where our federal architecture is concerned, that isn’t good enough.
There’s little reason to believe that Moynihan, who died in 2003, would have changed his mind about the general state of public architecture as a result of the Design Excellence program. In his book about modernist architecture, From a Cause to a Style (2007), Moynihan’s good friend Nathan Glazer wrote: “I believe that Moynihan, like so many of us, was no enthusiast of the breathless variety of innovative forms and materials and arrangements that are the trademarks of leading contemporary architects.”
Maybe Kamin will someday realize that GSA’s Design Excellence patronage really has been rigged—and mainly to empower modernist GSA bureaucrats and their allies at the American Institute of Architects. Again, GSA patronage does not totally exclude the classical, but systematically marginalizes it. In his important book, Art from the Swamp (2018), Bruce Cole—the late art historian and onetime chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities—describes GSA’s Byzantine jury system, which ensures that GSA, not the communities it supposedly serves, let alone the stakeholders affected by a given project, is all too often in control. This was especially the case with the Design Excellence process that led to the ill-suited Frank Gehry being chosen as the architect of the Dwight D. Eisenhower memorial now under construction in Washington. Gehry’s stage-set design is notoriously unpopular.
“Communities should continue to have the right and responsibility to decide for themselves what architectural design best fits their needs,” the AIA intoned in a letter to President Trump cosigned by its CEO, Robert Ivy. That’s especially rich, considering that Ivy served on the Design Excellence jury that selected Gehry. One wonders whom he claims to speak for when he declares, as he did on NPR this week, “In the twenty-first century, we’re very different people from the people who popularized Greek Revival architecture in the nineteenth century, beautiful as it was”—as if there were no such thing as a shared human nature across space and time. Ivy added: “To try to force-fit new systems in old forms is in and of itself difficult to do, inefficient, and is not who we are today.” That’s a modernist apparatchik’s way of saying, “We can’t build ’em like we used to because we don’t want to build ’em like we used to.”
Some distinguished voices presuming to speak for the classical camp don’t like the idea of a classical mandate for federal architecture. It’s hard to gauge how much of their opposition is driven by hostility to President Trump. But this isn’t about Trump. This is a rare opportunity to improve America’s architectural culture. The White House, for its part, should make the classical the default style for federal architecture throughout the nation, as the Treasury Department once did, and raise the bar for other traditional and modernist idioms, while retaining the richly deserved ban on Brutalism and Deconstructionism in the current draft. This would be change that sensible Americans, regardless of political orientation, can support.
Top Photo: Classical Washington: Interstate Commerce Commission, Department of Labor, and Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium buildings (1934), by Arthur Brown, Jr. (Photo: Courtesy of Author)
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