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Why Classical Architecture Matters

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Why Classical Architecture Matters

10 Blocks podcast February 12, 2020
Arts and Culture

Catesby Leigh joins Seth Barron to discuss President Trump’s draft executive order to give priority to classical-style architecture in the design of federal courthouses, agency headquarters, and other federal office buildings.

The classical style has inspired the most revered and popular buildings in the country—the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. But as Leigh reports, new federal rules after World War II enabled modernist styles of design, such as Brutalism and Deconstructivism, to set the tone for federal architecture. If adopted, the Trump administration’s order would designate the classical and other traditional architectural styles as “preferred” for all federal buildings.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to the 10 blocks podcast. This is Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal, filling in for Brian Anderson this week. Coming up on the show today, I'm going to talk with Catesby Leigh. He's a past founding chair and research fellow of the National Civic Art Society, an organization which supports a new executive order from the Trump administration that establishes a classical style of design for all federal buildings. The order has stirred up some negative responses from other architect groups, so we're excited to chat with Catesby to find out what's behind the executive order and the controversy. He's written about this issue for City Journal in the past, and we'll link to some of his essays in the description.

One note for our listeners before we get started, we had some technical issues in the studio this week, so we decided to call Catesby over the phone and record our conversation that way. The audio isn't ideal, but I think our listeners will enjoy it. That's it for the introduction. My interview with Catesby Leigh begins after the music.

Welcome back to 10 blocks, the podcast of City Journal. This is your host for today, Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal. I'm joined by Catesby Leigh, a widely published critic on art and architecture whose article for City Journal, “Why America Needs Classical Architecture,” has apparently inspired a guideline from the Trump administration on classical standards for all new federal buildings. This news has caused panic among the architectural elite who decry the fetishization of classical forms as incipient fascism. Catesby, thanks for joining us on 10 blocks.

Catesby Leigh: My pleasure.

Seth Barron: So what's the fuss about, and what is classicism in architecture?

Catesby Leigh: We'll just start with the latter question. Classicism originates in ancient Greece, and the original element in the classical vocabulary is the column and the superstructure it supports. It's a complex formal vocabulary and these elements are employed in Western architecture for hundreds of years, mainly starting with the Renaissance and going forward, and they are still in use.

As far as what's involved in the controversy, I would say the main issue is the rupture in cultural continuity. After World War II. In the 30s you had, as a prevalence style, art deco, which was clearly of classical derivation. It was a moderate style, a self-consciously modern style, but it drew on the past unambiguously, starting with the building materials used, stone in the main.

Seth Barron: Like the Empire State Building or the Chrysler building.

Catesby Leigh: Exactly, but this applies to many, many post offices, courthouses, office buildings. The Federal Reserve in Washington, on the other hand, there's more in the stripped classical vein, more explicitly classical, but with very little sculptural detail, very little. So that too is a sort of, an assertion of modernity in design.

So, but after that, the architectural profession, and again, we're talking about after World War II, the big architecture schools started being taken over by modernists in the 1930s. You had a complete change of paradigm, and the most influential paradigm was the machine, and whereas the historic paradigm, the classical paradigm had been the human body. So architecture became far more abstract, far more boxy, just explicitly boxy, and also more glassy because new materials that came into vogue, and this really did create a complete break with the past. What the effort to reform federal principles of design principles for architecture involves is largely an effort to stitch together the thread of cultural continuity, to reestablish it, and-

Seth Barron: Well Catesby, let me interrupt you for a second.

Catesby Leigh: Sure.

Seth Barron: What's wrong with embracing what's new, and having these interesting new materials and different forms and kind of breaking with the past? I mean, from my understanding, the federal government in the early 60s had a new head of dictum that federal architecture should embrace newness and not be tied to the past. So isn't that what people had been doing the last 30 years?

Catesby Leigh: The issue is that the rate of return on these new styles, which are like fashions that follow on the heels of one another in fairly rapid succession, the rate of aesthetic return on these new styles has been really, really meager. Whereas, when you think of federal building, of great federal architecture, you automatically think of the US Capitol, The White House, the Supreme Court, the archives in Washington, buildings like the Municipal Building and City Hall in New York, the City Hall in San Francisco, Grand Central Terminal. Modernism really hasn't produced anything to match those buildings, I think it's fair to say, and the distinguished buildings it has produced are very few and far between.

The lack of a humanist orientation in modernist architecture is a huge problem, because the systems of proportion and composition in classical architecture are derived from the human body. So we relate to these classical monuments in terms of our own embodied state. It's natural for us to be attracted to them.

Seth Barron: Let me interrupt for a second again, just to play devil's advocate. Your critics might say that when you talk about how classical norms are derived from the human body, they would say, "Well, you're talking about the White male body, and that's a very specific way of encoding nature," and that they kind of want to rupture this ideal and bring in other voices, say minorities and women who have been silenced by these, and sort erased by this kind of monumental architectural styles of the past. Does that, I think that fairly characterizes the criticism.

Catesby Leigh: There is a lot of that. I mean, this is, they are, that is to say the opposition is highly politicized. Architecture has become a sort of, a mode or a field for political warfare. It's really not so much about the aesthetics anymore. The proportion, the harmonious proportions of the human body are universal. I don't see how race has anything to do with it. I don't think classical architecture makes a distinct appeal to White people as opposed to people of color, and I don't think that the politicized response you describe is universal. I think it's very much an elite thing and it's a reaction elites propagate in the general public to the best of their ability. But if you look at an AIA polls from 2007 ranking the top, the public's favorite 150 buildings, classical buildings, they really weigh out, perform the modernist competition.

Seth Barron: Okay, well let me-

Catesby Leigh: They are more widely loved.

Seth Barron: Well, here's this woman, Kate Wagner, who has an article in The New Republic, and she responds to that. She says, I'm quoting her, "The notion of the ‘architecture of the people,’ the architecture that the people really want, fuels both adds for new suburban developments and the architectural ideologies of the Nazis. Claiming to speak for the aesthetic tastes of the Everyman is a trick tucked up the sleeve of both Don Draper and Albert Speer. It's so cheap that it's hard to ascribe any real morality to it." So is that what you're evoking, just this kind of like fake pop, this populism that just is a thin gauze of lies over fascist nostalgia?

Catesby Leigh: How is the United States Capitol about fascist nostalgia? I mean, that that would be my reply. Again, there is a very important element to buildings like the great buildings in Washington, extending from the political buildings to buildings like The National Gallery of Art, West building. These are buildings that stand apart from everyday experience, and they are revered for their aesthetic qualities, and that is, in my opinion, an instinctive reaction of the public at large because of the physical qualities, the proportional and compositional qualities I've mentioned.

As far as traditional, there is a preponderance of traditional styles in suburban development. It's true, and the use of those styles can be very superficial. It can be very commodified, but these are the styles people relate to, so it plays out at different cultural levels and with different degrees of cultural sophistication.

Seth Barron: But at the same time, all right, yes, it's true that the US Capitol, I mean, the US Capitol is of its time, but is there a way to incorporate classical modes and remain within this tradition without just copying it by ropes?

Catesby Leigh: Yes.

Seth Barron: I mean, you accept the idea that style develops and that there are new materials, there are things to incorporate. No?

Catesby Leigh: Yes, yes. First of all, there was formal innovation within the classical tradition until you have this rupture after the war. Like I was saying, art deco develops out of the classical traditions, and I do not regard classicism as a closed system. It provides inspiration for emulation. Emulation can take different forms, but it involves being inspired by a precedent and trying to equal that precedent, and you can either do it by following its general lines or trying to achieve an equivalent aesthetic power in a new way. I really think the possibility of using the classical vocabulary in new ways is very much with us, and I don't think every building that comes out of a classical building program is going to fit tidally within one genre of classicism or another. I think you'll get plenty of diversity of interpretation.

Seth Barron: I mean, for instance, you cited the West Wing of The National Gallery, the classical main building, but then there's the East Wing designed by I. M. Pei, which I think references classical modes. Do you see that within the tradition or is that part of the-

Catesby Leigh: No, it's not referenced, no, no, that's completely incorrect.

Seth Barron: Okay.

Catesby Leigh: The only thing it references is the marble masonry of the West Building, and the West Building has the compositional principles I mentioned, the human proportions. Now I should add, but this system proportions involves lesser architectural elements being subordinated to larger architectural elements, and like the human hand incorporated in to the human arm, you can break down the scales of the West Building.

At the East Building, it is an abstract, geometric conception, and there is nothing of the human scale in there in the sense you have it in the West Building. Also, it does not resolve well as you walk around the building. When you're looking at it from the West Building, it's a very picturesque vista of architectural masses, but the composition does not hang together well. It does not come together well as you walk around the building, and inside the building, because of the triangular orientation of the floor plan, the vistas do not resolve. They're disjointed, they're disjoined.

Seth Barron: It's a bit of a mess.

Catesby Leigh: It is nonconformism. On top of that, the structural system for the cladding failed within 30 years, so that's another problem.

Seth Barron: Right, they had to redo it. Well, so talking about other federal buildings that your piece referred to, like the courthouse in Utah.

Catesby Leigh: Yes.

Seth Barron: What is the problem? Don't people, I mean, these new buildings, aren't they subject to some, they're subject to review. People look at them. I mean, I assume the public is allowed to comment. So what's the problem? I mean, aren't they kind of interesting and don't they refer to the history, and the space, and the time, and the people who live in a place in a way that makes more sense? I mean, does it make sense to plop the Parthenon down in Salt Lake City? Maybe it makes sense to have-

Catesby Leigh: Right next to what is popularly known as the Borg Cube, which is the courthouse annex you're referring to, is a very handsome courthouse with a colonnade, it's true, but it's a very handsome courthouse that nobody would mistake for the Parthenon in a million years. This is not, the classicism is not a matter of one style leads to one design. It's a very varied tradition, and it's a tradition that the people of Salt Lake City probably prefer to the glass box that I would say has, looks like it's been plopped from outer space.

Seth Barron: Sure. So is this really just a question? I mean, it's funny, because your critics seem to imply that they're the ones really speaking on behalf of the people or of the disenfranchised. Yet, their idiom is so baroque and so insular, and it just seems to really come out of like a faculty lounge. It's hard to-

Catesby Leigh: I totally agree with that, and this is the problem as I see it. Modernism, because of this lack of humanist orientation, never got traction with the public. For instance, you did not have a national historic preservation movement until you had urban renewal, one of whose first great crimes, I would call it a crime, others might not, was the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station in New York City.

That was a huge spur to the growth of historic preservation and also the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. So, you also have this additional problem of these new architectural styles, like deconstructionism, which can only emerge from academic elites, and which really can only be defended by elites. They are, they just don't engage ordinary people, and the great example of that is the San Francisco Federal Building, which is a window, a very shallow, window walls, concrete slab with this very bizarre metal screen tacked onto it like a billboard and bears this weird, huge, weird gash in the midst of this billboard, and it's just repellent.

Seth Barron: Is it supposed to look like it's being taken down? It has a very curious half completed, half demolished feel to it.

Catesby Leigh: It does not look as structurally unstable as some big constructionist buildings, but it looks wall and incomplete, and it's meant to be visually aggressive, and the sensibility behind this building is that architecture has the power to change the way we see the world. That's what the architect Thom Mayne said, and I just don't think it does that. It just makes us think, "Why is Uncle Sam putting up this hideous building?"

I want to emphasize, the general services administration bureaucracy devoted two, not one, but two expensively produced monographs to this building, and it never did that for any other federal building. It's erected, and this just shows how out of touch these people are and how sort of parochial their concerns have been. The classical buildings they very, very occasionally commission are in response to political pressure from politicians who control the purse strings for example.

Seth Barron: So what kind of politics does Thom Mayne want to emerge from this building, which really is bizarre looking? I mean, he says he wants people to acknowledge or to respond to it by thinking that architecture has the power to change the world, but change it-

Catesby Leigh: The way we see the world.

Seth Barron: The way, okay, but towards what end?

Catesby Leigh: That's a good question, and this gets a little bit, ecological concerns are one big part of it because the building was designed to be extremely energy efficient, and it did not get the energy efficiency rating it aspired to. It failed to qualify for it. Also, there was a big problem in the wind, in the building amongst the federal workers with abrupt changes in temperature, drafts, and there was a problem with the inadequate screening of sunlight. There were actually umbrellas in the building. People were putting up umbrellas because of the glare. As a result, the building, in a GSA pole of new or renovated buildings for worker friendliness, that is a poll taken of people working on these buildings, but the federal building in San Francisco came in dead last.

Seth Barron: Interesting. I saw one commentator remarked about Thom Mayne's buildings, that they look like a collision of grocery carts.

Catesby Leigh: That was a bank he did in Austria. I honestly think, that's the bank he did in Austria. You know, I don't understand this patronage, because I see these clients as victims. I think there's just this obsession with being culturally [inaudible]. I really believe, judging by the picture of that bank, that the commentator's exactly right. That's really what it looks like, collided grocery carts.

Seth Barron: Catesby, this has been a great discussion, and I encourage all of our listeners to check out Catesby's work at city-journal.org. His article, “Why America Needs Classical Architecture,” really set the flag in the ground and has actually resulted in political change, it appears. So thanks very much, Catesby, for coming on. We'd love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter @CityJournal, #10Blocks. If you like our show and want to hear more of it, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.

This is your host, Seth Baron. Catesby Leigh, thanks so much for joining us.

Catesby Leigh: It's been a pleasure, Seth.

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Photo: Supreme Court Building, Washington D.C. (P_Wei/iStock)

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