Architecture into politics

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This building in Poundbury was designed by Craig Hamilton. (Dezeen)

In his Dezeen essay “To confront populism, all architects should become classicists,” Phineas Harper suggests that the architectural profession should compromise its aesthetics and embrace classicism in order to build social housing that is often blocked by NIMBY forces when it is designed in mod- ernist styles. He links to a populist UKIP party video. (The United Kingdom Independence Party led last year’s Brexit fight.) Its video, untitled, expresses anger at how classicism is stomped on and rubbed out by a professional elite of modernist architects, and pledges an official reverse in policy.

The video is linked in the essay by Harper, who feels its pain while evidently deploring its populism. Still, it is excellent. Watch it!

The idea Harper puts forth is ridiculous. Modernists are not going to turn classicist just to support their generally leftist political ideology. But Harper asks why not? And his essay makes many, many good points regarding, um, architecture. Here is one passage:

Whether in academia or in practice, most respectable architects stick doggedly to a late-modern century Swiss(ish) tame-form modernism with occasional extravagant set pieces provided by starchitects. Yet simultaneously we all know that classicism remains hugely popular with the public and planners alike. They might not know the difference between the Doric and Ionic orders, nor possess a detailed lexicon of astragals and finials, but they know what they like, and what they like generally has a cornice. If the public is the ultimate client for architecture, isn’t it elitist to consistently dismiss their taste?

More importantly, huge resistance faces the construction of essential new public buildings. Isn’t it morally imperative that architects swallow their aesthetic qualms and design in the style most able to garner the political support needed to overcome any barriers? There are buildings that urgently need to be built; hospitals, housing, schools and so on. Why, then, do architects consistently throw potentially derailing obstacles in the way of these projects by insisting on modern styling, knowing full well that doing so hardens public opposition and chips away at political will? …

We will happily make many other compromises to see work built – so why not style? We will work for dubious developers who we know are more interested in their shareholders than end users. We will squeeze out communal spaces, reduce ceiling heights and shrink rooms to the minimum standards at the behest of miserly clients. We will climb into bed on estate regeneration schemes that lead to the displacement of poor families, and will routinely overwork our staff while failing to give them proper credit. But work in a classical style? Unthinkable!

UKIP has basically done what I have for years urged the Democrats or the Republicans to do here in America: The first party to embrace new tradi- tional architecture as a policy issue could easily steal a march on its oppo- nents. Whether it will succeed or not, who knows, but this is what UKIP has done. This is what the GOP or the Democrats should do.

Enjoy both the essay and the UKIP video linked to the essay. And thank you, Hank Dittmar, for sending Harper’s essay and the three-and-a-half minute UKIP video to the TradArch list.

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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4 Responses to Architecture into politics

  1. steve bass says:

    Though of course I share the goal of having architectural training embody the classical and traditional I have to say that NIMBYism in opposing government sponsored housing isn’t caused by architectural style. When a government wants to put housing in a mono-ethnic working or middle class neighborhood the residents ask ‘Who’s going to live in that housing? When they are told that the government has to allow anyone financially qualified to live there the neighborhood says ‘Not THOSE people!’ and the NIMBYism begins. Though a large majority of the public prefers traditional design to modernist, style can only be an excuse, a ‘dog-whistle’, if you will. That the article quoted links to UKIP gives this away.
    While the classical might have more appeal on the right than the left I agree with the implication of Steve Semes’ post above that if our aesthetic mission is to succeed elements of both factions will need to be brought onboard.


    • Steve, I agree. Two points. First, whatever the situation, lovelier architecture is better. Ugly architecture may not cause NIMBYism but it could help undercut it. Two: “I hope both will see the light.” (Quote from my reply to Steve) It’s more likely to happen if one party sees the light first. The most likely is that neither sees it at all. But if one does, the other might join in to minimize the damage. It is most unlikely that both will see the light at the same time.


  2. Steven Semes says:

    Not Democrats OR Republicans, but AND.


    • I too hope both will see the light, but if one is arguing that someone should embrace new traditional architecture in order to steal a march on their opponent, then one has to at least go first!


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