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Trump’s Classical-Architecture Edict Is Dumb — But Not Worth the Outrage

Photo: Getty Images. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer

Last week, the Trump administration opened another front in the ongoing war on expertise. After battling diplomats, generals, spies, scientists, and journalists, the president and his minions are now trolling architects. If Trump signs the executive order that has been circulating in draft form, new federal buildings will follow a mandated preference for the classical style. Let Doric columns and entablatures spring from the land. All other aesthetic approaches will be deemed officially ugly. And because nobody in the United States seems capable of resisting the president’s provocations, the architecture world has responded with a fugue of protest — first one voice, then another, gathering into a hosanna of indignation. The profession’s national organization, historians, preservationists, critics, and even classical-minded architects have issued statements decrying the prospect of a government-dictated style as reminiscent of Stalin and Albert Speer.

I’m saving my outrage. The White House’s proposed architectural edict is a boneheaded idea cooked up by a crackpot cabal of ideologues who hate not just modern architecture but modernity itself. Yet on the scale of Trump’s iniquities, the move barely registers. This administration’s attack on the natural environment is far more dire than anything it could wreak on the built environment.

The executive order doesn’t censor architects or stifle creativity in the country at large. It confines itself to however many federal courthouses, embassies, and passport offices the government can get built in the regime’s remaining (I hope) months or (please, no) years. It doesn’t portend architectural apocalypse. A broad-brushed stylistic preference is not a crushing burden compared with the more mundane restrictions architects contend with every day. Clients’ fears, donors’ egos, lenders’ rules, a budget-review process that strips away all nonessential and therefore interesting design details, the supply chain for steel and glass, the deeply ingrained habits of the construction industry — these are the conditions that lead to widespread homogeneity in contemporary architecture.

Most critics have reacted less to the administration’s specific biases than to the idea of government-mandated aesthetics with an explicit ideological agenda. That’s distasteful, but architecture is already inherently political because it costs a lot of money and takes place in public. At the local level, historic districts, zoning rules, building codes, and town ordinances already build in highly specific preferences: the ratio of glass to masonry, for instance, the presence of a stoop or bay, the massing of a tower. These regulations exist to prevent the worst possible outcomes, not to guarantee great architecture, but finding creative ways to deal with them is exactly what architects do.

Like everything Trump touches, the edict is bizarrely polarizing, forcing the public and professionals to take sides in a debate that doesn’t really exist. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a die-hard modernist reject neoclassicism on principle, or vice versa. Preservationists fight equally hard for endangered works of all aesthetic persuasions. A few architects have built careers on profoundly personal expressions. But many firms refuse to cultivate a house look, and they swear allegiance to no ism. The idea of a distinct style has lost its potency.

Now, though, the administration is trying to turn the complex, fluid history of style into one more hard border. The draft order declares that the government has been erecting buildings that only an eggheaded elitist could love. Depressingly, architects and critics have rushed to prove its point. I can understand why. I too am tempted to join in defending the targets of the order’s anti-modern ire or in pointing out that once-hated federal buildings can become beloved in time. I might also suggest that attacking Brutalism (a period that was pretty much over by the Reagan years) and Deconstructivism (specifically, Morphosis’s two-decade-old design of the Federal Building in San Francisco) shows that the administration can’t even keep its hatreds up to date. I could remind the wannabe style czars that the round of embassies currently under construction will represent the nation abroad with dignity and grace. But aesthetic arguments inevitably hit an impasse, devolving into juvenile attacks on other people’s taste. It’s a losing game.

The document dishonors classicism, miscasting it as a symbol of nostalgia rather than a shape-shifting tradition with promiscuous political associations. So it’s disconcerting to see opponents make a similar mistake. A fulminating Times editorial interpreted the term classical as narrowly as possible: “In other words, federal buildings, most of all federal courthouses, should resemble Roman temples as closely as possible — although presumably without any statues of false gods in the lobby.” Perhaps it’s true that Trump’s crew craves overscale knockoffs, a nation sprinkled with Caesars Palaces. It’s possible the government will hand out federal jobs only to the tiny club of architects who not only work in an acceptably retro mode but also have experience with large structures, complicated programs, and stringent security requirements. Maybe the symbol of Trump-era design will be a concrete-sheathed tower with a cute, little portico and a colonnaded blast wall — the kind of thing Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark might have dynamited. But that doesn’t have to be what we get.

At the turn of the 20th century, American architects routinely shipped themselves off to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where they learned to draw scrolls, cartouches, corbels, and mascarons, then applied their training to the era’s loftiest institutions, like the New York Public Library, Washington’s Union Station, and the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. In the FDR era, a more stripped-down version of antiquity-inspired design yielded Art Deco, the American version of which became ubiquitous in post offices, libraries, courthouses, and government buildings. A strain of classicism runs through all-white modernism, too, from Le Corbusier to Richard Meier’s Getty Center to the bleached ribs of Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus.

It’s not surprising to see Trump’s dumb grumps conclude that architecture they don’t like must be in the wrong style — but that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to agree. The ratio of hackwork to masterpieces remains roughly constant from age to age, from ism to ism. And if style is no guarantor of good taste, then it follows that the classical style is not a condemnation to tastelessness. What if, rather than invoking Speer, architects took the new edict as the kind of challenge they generally relish? Designers could try to satisfy both benighted bureaucrats and their own sense of honor, not by trotting out a tired set of mannerisms but with inventiveness — by coming up with one more neo-neo-neoclassical-revival revival that is simultaneously familiar and forward looking. It’s been done before.

Trump’s Classical-Architecture Edict Isn’t Worth the Outrage