Bring diversity to fed design

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Federal Building and Courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (Architect Magazine)

A provocative debate has broken out over a draft proposal to return classical design to the heart of federal architecture, especially in our nation’s capital. The title of the draft executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” leads with its chin, and is a product of the Trump administration, so it is no surprise that ranks of establishment architects have stumbled over each other to criticize the proposal.

Most critics pose their case against the order upon the credo of diversity, seemingly innocent of the idea that the draft order itself is a response to decades over which diversity has been purged from the federal architectural palatte. Classicism has evolved over thousands of years, with builders ever seeking a better way to frame the corner of a columniated portico or to develop a leak-proof roof. It is inherently diverse, although most critical responses to the order seek to “scare” readers with the image of countless Parthenons marching down endless Washington boulevards.

Classical architecture was chosen by Washington and Jefferson to represent the virtues of the new nation, based on Athenian democracy and republican Rome. In the early 20th century, the founding European modernists created an architecture in which most people would be cogs in machines catering to socialist and authoritarian principle, and then brought it to America. Having tossed out the toolbox of beauty developed over centuries, the style was and always has been generally unpopular, and, in order to compete, sought the eradication of old architectural styles. Most architects practicing today have forgotten this, or ignore it, but it is an atavistic feature, not a bug, of what was at first widely known as the International Style.

Virtually all federal buildings erected today are modernist, and have been for three-quarters of a century. Classical and traditional architecture have been frowned upon since the post-war era by the General Services Administration, which oversees the design, construction and maintenance of federal offices and monuments throughout the country. The proposed Trump order would specifically discourage, if not ban, modern architecture. To most people, this looks like a long-overdue corrective. The federal government was the last segment of U.S. society to abandon tradition in its approach to architecture, and it would be pleasingly ironic were it to be the first to re-embrace styles preferred by most American citizens. That would make sense in a democracy.

A federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., completed a few years ago, is one of the very few major works of classical design to be sponsored by the GSA in decades. It is pictured atop this post. Admit that you’ve not seen much of its caliber in eons.

A draft order is several stages away from an accomplishment. During the administration of George W. Bush, classicist professor Thomas Gordon Smith of Notre Dame’s school of architecture was nominated to be the GSA’s chief architect. Heads exploded among the architectoriate, and the nomination was swiftly withdrawn. It looks as if the usual suspects are trying to gin up a similar campaign, which includes trying to sully the reputations of fine organizations such as the National Civic Art Society, which has been involved the the generation of the draft order.

Should there be an official style? Probably not, but under the circumstances, where an elite establishment has dictated federal style for generations, some sort of pushback is in order. If the system of doling out major architectural commissions reflected a market approach to economic choice, there would be no need for an “official” style. But there has been an official style as long as most people can remember, and it has uglified cities and towns since time immemorial. A federal boost for classicism would not reverse that instantly, of course, but it would be a long-overdue start at reintegrating beauty and civility into a field where education, journalism, firms and every other aspect of city making have been the fiefdom of the few, to the dismay of the many.

I will return to this discussion again, you may be sure. I have been wondering whether the Donald would play a role in architecture. Here is my Nov. 9, 2016 post “Vote’s “style wars” tea leaves.”

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, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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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18 Responses to Bring diversity to fed design

  1. Pingback: Readings on the exec. order | Architecture Here and There

  2. Pingback: Unify to fight for beauty, civility | Architecture Here and There

  3. Thank you for informing us on the latest effort by one side in the American culture to force something on the other. It has been a personal frustration that for the last 30 years as I have continued the 130 year tradition of our firm in producing contemporary traditional historically inspired original designs that the modernists have maintained a stranglehold on all good commissions, all media commentary and criticism and with the exception of 500 Boylston Street in Boston by Stern, all major commissions.
    Modernists have conspired and cooperated both openly in the media and quietly behind closed doors at the AIA for more than 50 years to kill off and silence all non-modernist work, architects and thought. The founder of our firm was one very successful architect who was silenced by the media and MOMA and that is not hyperbole, we have proof.
    All of that said, as tempting as it is to “give em some of what they handed out” we should be cautious. Forcing art as Mussolini famously did always results in a tainted result. Do we now appropriate the same methods as those who we proclaim as Charlatans, Poseurs, Mountbanks and Villains? Will we assume the mantle of the fools on the hill to gain a short term advantage?
    Indeed the Frank Gehry’s of the world are being commissioned all the time by the dominant paradigm.
    I would advocate soldiering on in the opposition and gain our advantage from the supprot of teh people. From the grassroots. The modernist edifiace will fall of its own bloated weight.

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    • That’s a valid case, Ethan, but I don’t think it needs to be automatically assumed that classicists will behave like authoritarians when given half a chance (or a full one). Classicism is not just a style but an approach to life. A course correction is in order for all the reasons you adduce. But we could be soldiering on for many decades and indeed have been with rather little to show for it. We are not competing with the modernists; we are trying to get out from under their boot. Whatever the provenance of this administrative order, we should use the tools at hand. Any port in a storm.

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  4. Peter Van Erp says:

    Since this post is a response to news which has happened since you went under the knife, I deduce that you have recovered enough to start posting again. That is great news!

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  5. Peter Van Erp says:

    101 years ago, Oswald Spengler published Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West). It is a long study of the arc of civilizations, compared the West to previous civilizations, and predicted where the West would be going. At the end of the second volume, there is a table of comparisons. The predictions include ”2. End of form-development. Meaningless, empty, artificial, pretentious architecture and ornament. Imitation of archaic and exotic motives … from 2000”. Right on time.
    Spengler would not have been surprised by our contemporary politics, either.

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  6. Chris says:

    Washington, Jefferson, et al, didn’t choose classical architecture as if it were one item in a menu of choices; classicism was the one and only current way of building. Other styles, to the extent they were recognized at all, were playthings fit for garden follies or at most a fanciful interior.

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  7. kathleen says:

    Living in Europe, I’ve seen inspiring and original contemporary civic architecture as well as more than a few new atrocities. Here in Italy we are still surrounded by Mussolini’s nationalist effort to Make Italy Rome Again, some of which grows on you, while some evokes very unpleasant associations. So many public structures Mussolini built or cosmetically altered are still in everyday use, too many to tear down (and Italians rarely tear down anything anyway).

    When I visit America, the heartbreaker is of course that America tears down almost everything and saves almost nothing But curiously, it also seems to me now that the architectural culture is, if not preservative, than way too conservative — I don’t mean politically conservative, but rather timid or safe in architectural vision, not reflective of the American personality, still looking to Europe for a baseline for beauty — at a time when Europe is feels compelled to be more experimental (working out what it means today to be “European”).

    Throughout Europe it seems mostly easy to “read” the main idea that a new work of civic architecture was designed to embody and project — whereas in America, one’s first response is often: “What were they thinking?” Maybe it’s a deeper confusion in the culture: whether America actually doesn’t have or can’t agree upon ideas, and keeps returning to the founders. I actually think the US does and could embrace a multiplicity of new ideas, but perhaps the best of these ideas remain more regional than national. For those of us who would like to see localism get more love in American life, and are a bit wary of the workability and wisdom of neo-nationalism, I would like to see more thought given to a Federal policy that respects and supports regional architectural ideas as well as Federal classicism.

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  8. Lewis Dana says:

    Welcome back, David. Glad to sense indications of recovery sufficient to take up the cudgels against the evil forces of modernism anew. You must be delighted with this latest initiative of POTUS. Wish I could share your enthusiasm.

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  9. LazyReader says:

    That being said DC is a nightmare of a city. Design wise it’s a mess. It’s large expansive avenues were easily adapted to auto usage. The low widely separated buildings whose heights restricted by law render building residences overpriced catastrophe. While DC has many places beautiful enough for a walk. There’s little to walk to out of necessity. The city is difficult to get around on foot. The traffic circles, big lawns, huge plazas and massive public squares provide little activity. Parks and open spaces are pretty, but they’re also vacuums which don’t attract human activity, especially at night. At night, heavily wooded areas in major cities are nothing but drug, rape and sex havens. Look no further than Portland, whose small city square layout and obsession with green has made heavily wooded parks with pitbull wielding drug addicts camping in the squares.

    Plenty of dignified public buildings, but they serve only one purpose, to cater and serve the federal bureaucracy, Residents, Good luck. Aesthetically the city has become a bigger mess. Post WWII, the government expanded to the point it had no space left to occupy, solution BULLDOZE whole neighborhoods to build the massive bureaucratic power complex. Before the massive growth of government, Washington DC was a modest and largely unbusy town; by urbanite standards one would consider a podunk. The city was populated by brothels, saloons, freed slave quarters and Marylander and Virginians escaping the grit and gristle of Baltimore and Annapolis.

    Beautiful buildings aside…the Fed doesn’t need anymore buildings. The Government has tons of office buildings it lets sit empty. UP until Donald Trump turned the Old Post Office building into one of his hotels. The government lost 6 MILLION dollars a year as the annex sit empty. That’s one of the 14,000 excess buildings they admit to.

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