Architects’ Trump moment?

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Donald Trump confronts modern architecture? (Common/Edge)

Duo Dickinson has a brilliant essay – “Will Architecture Have Its Donald Trump Moment?” – on the website Common/Edge. He compares the Republican establishment in politics to the modernist establishment in architecture. He compares those carrying pitchforks in the armies of Trump and Sanders to the masses pounding sand as they contemplate the inexplicable horror of the built environment. He begins:

There are two architectures. Not officially, yet, but the perception is real and growing that there is an architectural apartheid. There is an “inside” (the AIA, academia, mainstream journalism) and an “outside” (building, client-serving, context-accommodating architects). Thought leaders edit the images, words and lectures we all see to a soft-focus similarity of defendable Modernist Chic. The vast majority of us who do not teach (literally 90 percent: 60,000 doing vs. 6,000 teaching) or write/edit/promote the “cutting edge,” or lead an ever-shrinking AIA, do not feel part of the discourse.

But Dickinson says it has little to do with style – traditional versus modernist – and then his essay segues into concern for the average architect and his travails in a field dominated by starchitects and the starchitecture-centered American Institute of Architects.

The entire essay is a deft dodging of the fact that it is indeed all about style. Here is the moment when Dickinson’s fine essay trips up on its refusal acknowledge the applicability of his own observations:

It’s simplistic to say that it’s a style split: obviously in promoted architectural aesthetics “Elite=Modern,” but the disaffection in my profession (normal in year 8 of a building bust) is more about the invisibility of everything except the “cutting edge.”

That the public prefers houses that look like houses, churches that look like churches, and museums that look like museums introduces an impossible degree of distortion into everything about the field of architecture. That makes it harder for the typical practice to operate. Decisions made by architects and firms must discount reality from their business models. Architect wannabes have no alternative to a modernist education, little prospect for jobs at firms where they can use what they were taught, and nothing to look forward to but the widespread dislike of their work, whether they get a job with a modernist firm or with one of the many that build spec housing and spec commercial. Such architecture is called “bad trad” largely because the firms that build it must hire from a pool of graduates who were not allowed to learn how to produce “good trad” – only how to disdain it.

Most architects feel dissed because most people who experience architecture feel dissed. In politics, there is recourse to an electoral process. No such luck in architecture, which suppresses dissent with a vigor matched in no other field. It’s as if  voters seeking to express their anger were to find goons barring entry to voting booths. In architecture, the truncheon-gripping apparatchiks are the AIA, the schools of architecture, the culture of celebrity architecture and its media. “And don’t come back,” say the establishment’s gatekeepers, “until you have the broomstick of the Wicked Witch!”

I wonder why Duo Dickinson is so reluctant to recognize the obvious conclusion that his observations add up to.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Architects’ Trump moment?

  1. Pingback: Duo Dickinson on Trump II | Architecture Here and There

  2. Judith, that sounds counter-intuitive to me. The architectural establishment says “Like that building” but the public probably thinks it is too big and too expensive. Some may like it because they are supposed to like it, or because it is supposed to be good for the local economy, but I’d wager that most people do not like it.

    I wonder how many of those people who said that to you knew you were writing a book about it. (By the way, you’re supposed to say “If I had a nickel for each time…” But I guess you have factored inflation into the account!)


    • Duo says:

      The reason “style” is not the issue for this piece is thecsamevresson both Bernie Sanders and Donsld Trimpmhave had unexpected success: the content they advocate is very different, and it’s not the reason for their success: the seminal reason both have outperformed all conventional wisdom is because the dominant, “correct” paradigms have lost the confidence of their st


      • Perhaps my reading of your article is incorrect, but I got the impression that whatever the specific content of Trump and Sanders’ issues, they are alike in that they both reflect the public’s anger at being ignored by the establishment. True, the content isn’t the reason for their success – all the more reason they may be compared to the public being ignored by the architectural establishment. Regular architects’ being ignored is merely a subset of the public’s being ignored. Bingler and Pedersen made this argument brilliantly a year and a half ago in the New York Times and then backed away from it. I think you have identified the same very serious issue, but do not seem to want to press it. It is all about style. That is the elephant in the living room. You have dissected the situation brilliantly but for that one omission.


  3. Judith Dupre says:

    Bravo. And thanks for voicing my thoughts, almost to a tee. This quote especially resonates in light of the many conversations I’ve had about the new World Trade Center — “There are two architectures. Not officially, yet, but the perception is real and growing that there is an architectural apartheid. There is an “inside” (the AIA, academia, mainstream journalism) and an “outside” (building, client-serving, context-accommodating architects).” If I had a dollar for every person who’s pulled me aside and said of the WTC, “I know I’m not ‘supposed’ to like it, but I do,” I’d be living on a tropical island somewhere.


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