Returning to Public Beauty



Returning to Public Beauty

Our federal buildings have been controlled by destroyers for too long.

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There is an argument made by certain architects that, in its simplest form, goes something like this: Because Hitler liked classical architecture, we have a moral obligation to build ugly buildings.

People who make this argument think that building ugly buildings is a way to atone for the real and perceived sins of 20th-century fascist regimes. It has cooties all the way down: Fascists liked classical architecture, we don’t like fascists, ipso facto, we don’t like classical architecture. Americans have to endure miserable built environments because Mussolini had good taste.

Or maybe they won’t. Fox News’s Patrick Hauf reported that Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, a Republican, introduced legislation to codify Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture, one of his final acts as president and the rescinding of which was one of Joe Biden’s first.

Trump’s executive order, recognizing that public buildings should “beautify public spaces and inspire civic pride,” declared classical style “the preferred and default architecture for Federal public buildings.” The president was required to be made aware whenever the General Services Administration, responsible for the construction of public buildings, signed off on a new federal building whose design would be characterized by “fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry, and the appearance of instability.”

The executive order replaced a disastrous status quo. Faced with a surge in the federal workforce, John Kennedy established the Ad Hoc Committee of Federal Office Space to create a framework for the construction of new federal office buildings. In 1962, that committee published the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which delegated the design of federal buildings to “distinguished architects.” It insisted that while no single federal style should be imposed, preference should be given to “contemporary” designs. The result was a rash of Brutalist and Modernist eyesores, from the dystopian J. Edgar Hoover and Hubert H. Humphrey Buildings to the warped, concrete-fitted Robert C. Weaver Building.

Polling reveals that more than 70 percent of Americans prefer classical and traditional architecture, but popularity was never the point for the Brutalist and Modernist architects. Their designs were intended to crush the human spirit and reflect what they perceived as the brutality of human existence. The response to Trump’s executive order revealed that his critics agreed with those premises, even if they dressed up their concerns as being about the administration’s imposition of one single style.

In Forbes, for example, architecture writer Juan Sebastian Pinto argued that the problem with Trump’s E.O. didn’t “lie within neoclassical architecture itself, but in its deployment for a higher political purpose under the direction of the president.” All architecture should and does have a “higher political purpose,” of course, which, lines later, we learn that Pinto himself believes, when he argued that the ugly architecture served the libertarian purpose of reflecting the “brutality” of government coercion:

So far, the overwhelming majority of federal architecture in the 70-plus years since the GSA was established, including the headquarters of our favorite 3-letter agencies — the IRS, the FBI, and the NSA — have aligned to a cold, modernist frigidity. 

These representations are truthful to the workings of the state. Our modern architects and bureaucrats have not lied to us, as they have in other centuries, with sprawling classical and beaux-arts overhauls. Most GSA buildings have, in their form, been openly testament to an increasingly secretive, self-contained, and all-seeing state apparatus. They should not represent anything else but the brutality of government institutions that are no longer simply concerned with collecting taxes, but also the details of our personal lives, by force.

Pinto and other critics said the Trump E.O. was a harbinger of “fascism.” In the New Republic, the architectural critic Kate Wagner said Trump was catering to the “architectural ideologies of the Nazis.” In a since-deleted tweet, urban studies professor Renee Tapp compared Trump to Stalin and Mussolini, saying he, like them, “love[s] classical architecture.” The Chicago Sun-Times quipped that “Mussolini, Franco and a particular failed German art student all pushed for a singular, classically inspired state architecture intended to project tradition, order and the superiority of the state.”

You’ll notice that none of these is an actual argument against traditional architecture, or even against mandating traditional architecture—you’re supposed to hear the names Hitler and Mussolini and suspend your faculties of reason. But when you push aside all the bluster about “fascism,” you realize that these critics don’t disagree with the principle that the built enviornment can serve a political purpose. In fact, it’s precisely because they believe that that the Biden administration was so prompt to repeal Trump’s executive order.

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Within weeks of Biden’s inauguration, D.C.’s deputy mayor John Falcicchio sent a letter to the White House asking him to review Trump’s appointees to the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, warning that the “CFA now consists entirely of white, male Trump appointees supportive of the former administration’s ill-conceived Executive Order, ‘Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.’” Those appointees, and their support for traditional architecture, could, he said, impede the city’s ability to support “diversity and advance equity as a remedy to the legacy of discrimination that shapes our surroundings to this day.”

Falcicchio, more than the critics who bleated about the Trump administration’s supposed interference in the artistic process, understands that the architecture itself, and the political and cultural priorities that architecture reflects, were at the heart of the dispute over the executive order. People with disordered interior lives want their environment to reflect that disorder back to them. People with well-ordered interior lives want the opposite. If you are the party of chaos and disorder, you want the built environment that communicates as much to those who inhabit it.

The Guardian characterized the dispute over Trump’s executive order as “between those who trust architects and professionals to design whatever they think is best, and those who seek to control what they do.” We have trusted the “architects and professionals to design whatever they think is best” for the better part of a century, and today, almost every major downtown and new federal building is a drab glass-covered eyesore. If “control” is what it takes to reverse federal architecture’s course, then we ought to take control. As Banks’s bill reminds us, these are public buildings, after all.

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Returning to Public Beauty

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