Unify in the fight for beauty

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The Lincoln Memorial and the Austin, Texas, federal courthouse.

The draft executive order to encourage classical architecture for federal buildings in Washington and elsewhere has shifted the world of architecture on its axis. Patrick Webb, a teacher of ornamental plastering at the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., describes today’s situation with force and concision. Citing decades of classical subservience to modernist hegemony in the design field, Webb sums up the immediate and potentially profound impact of the draft order, entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again“:

We cannot go on acting as if we inhabit the old universe. The genie is out of the bottle. We now exist. The forum of action and the base of power has shifted to the public realm. There we are not minorities, perhaps even equals, and may in fact hold the advantage. New circumstances call for new leadership, one that will press that advantage to its absolute limit.

Let us assume that the prospect of a switch to classicism from what has effectively been a mandate for modernist federal architecture since 1962, at the very least, has not already been stifled in its cradle. What has happened since Feb. 4, when the draft order was leaked to the Architectural Record?

What has happened is that the forces of modernism have coalesced in a high and mighty dudgeon of opposition to the order. In response, the classicists have formed a classic circular firing squad. Although some of the classical opposition seems fired by Trump hatred, most of it seems sincerely based on strategic concerns. Not that most people would want their brand spokesman to be the president of the United States. Understood. Still, classicists must do a deep think, swiftly, and rise above personality. The stakes are too high.

I have scrolled through a lot of emails and commentary from classicists for and against the order over the past few days. Some classicists’ arguments against the order parrot (insincerely, I hope) modernist arguments against classicism, such as the concern with diversity that I mentioned two days ago in “Bring diversity to fed design.” Another said that the order is “a trap” of, no doubt, the let’s-you-and-him-fight variety. I doubt that the order was planted by spies from the American Institute of Architects, but it sure does look that way, given how many leading classicists – or rather leading leaders of classicist or classicist-sympathizing organizations – have come out against it. In the manner of apparatchiks down through history, they’ve got jobs to do. They don’t want to rock the boat, or enter roiling seas, even if their ship is named Classical Architecture. Better to fight another day!

The most ridiculous arguments against classicism are that the Nazis liked classical architecture. Well, it’s not as if they had any real choice in largely pre-modernist 1932. Or as if a building’s style is blameworthy for the lizards within. I like our McKim, Mead & White Rhode Island State House no matter how many scoundrels harbor under its dome. These arguments against classicism are as weak as arguments come, but because modernists have never had to face an opposition press, they have never had to defend them. The classical bureaucracy has had its fill of them, and lacks the stamina for the fight required to knock them down again and again. Which is why the modernists are deploying them against the draft executive order. It works. It would not work if classicists fought back. Consciously and unconsciously, the public is on the classicists’ side.

Today nobody pays any attention to the fact that the Nazis liked classicism, except for modernists who want to heave that dead cat on the portico of classical architecture. In fact, Hitler and the Nazis embraced modernism for factories and other utilitarian buildings, as Prof. James Stevens Curl reveals in his excellent history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (2018). As he and others have shown, founding modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe worked with Hitler through Goebbels trying to have modernism accepted as the design template for the Third Reich. Mies pushed but Hitler refused. That says a lot more about how modern architecture saw itself in its founding era than about how classicism’s legacy should be viewed today. But these are the secrets that modernists keep in their deep, dark, locked closets. Read Professor Curl. Arguably the leading American modernist of that era was so enamored of the Nazis that he entered Poland with the Wehrmacht. American journalist William Shirer thought Philip Johnson was not just tantalized by the Nazis but a propagandist for them. And his FBI file confirms that he was. This was long after he had famously curated the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 show on the International Style. Read The Man in the Glass House (2019), by Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, who is about as far as you can get from a classicist. As for—-

Damn! Damn! Damn!

I had so hoped to follow in the high-minded footsteps of Patrick Webb. In announcing a fourth meeting of the TradArch list in D.C., he writes grandly:

I can promise you this: TAG 4 will not be a lament by victims of what has happened to us. Rather it will be a call to action to reorient ourselves to the world as it is. We’re not weak. We are strong as we have the Good, the True and the Beautiful at our backs.

As the modernists recognize full well.

That explains the vigor of their attack on the draft executive order, but it doesn’t explain why some classicists seem so willing to play, in this ultimate and completely unexpected opportunity, into the modernists’ weak hand.

So, before my own head explodes, I will close by noting, with Webb, that the widespread popular preference for classical and traditional architecture that has prevailed ever since modern architecture was born a century ago gives classicists a big advantage. If we have the courage to fight this battle. So, please, let us unify. If we don’t, there will be no second chance.

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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7 Responses to Unify in the fight for beauty

  1. Well written! It is time for proponents of classical architecture to grow some backbone and not accept the modernists definition of them. From this we can learn from Trump. If they attack, attack them ten times more back.

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  2. STEVEN W SEMES says:

    David, I have fought for the cause of classical architecture for more than 40 years, and I support the aims of the draft Executive Order (barring some ambiguities that need further study and debate) but I am dismayed by the way this was handled. Those ambiguities will not be further debated now because of the irrational over-reaction of the establishment, which has made rational discussion all but impossible. That reaction was entirely predictable, which is why the NCAS initiative, carried out in secrecy without consultation among the classical practitioners and advocates, was politically tone-deaf. We are accustomed to being attacked for our taste in architecture, but are now being attacked as right-wing and Trump supporters–although most of us are certainly neither. The British report of the Commission co-chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton was a much better model and that is what NCAS should have done. Now we have to figure out how to salvage what might remain of the last four decades of hard work and turn this crisis into a teaching opportunity. Thanks for your writing and please do keep up your own advocacy, but I am afraid that our road is going to get much harder before it improves.

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    • I guess, Steve, that executive orders forged in secret are not optimal. But at whatever stage, any proposal of this sort would have been immediately attacked. If it had been done openly, it would merely have been attacked at an even earlier stage. Maybe that would have been better. I doubt it. Whatever its drawbacks, it is closer to a fait accompli. We must work with the hand we’ve been dealt, and not quail because it was done under Trump or in secrecy – I suspect most actions of government start in secrecy.

      As for the work of you and many others, it is not in jeopardy. It was undertaken precisely in preparation for an event such as this draft order. Because of all this preparation we can address the true correlation of forces as it shifts, in which the modernists are drastically overmatched. We could never have made much progress under the prior circumstances, just waiting for architecture schools to evolve. Or waiting for a similarly drastic federal administrative turnabout under a more lovable administration. Under what unforeseen frame of events was the current road not going to take half a century or two centuries to return beauty and tradition to its rightful place? I cannot imagine one, though there must be, conceivably, frames of events that could have brought about a more powerful, sudden threat to the modernist hegemony from another direction.

      Also, Steve, I read the draft Scuton commission report through, and while it was filled with admirable sentiments, they were almost entirely vague and even timid in their expression. Maybe it was improved after Sir Roger’s reinstatement. But now he has died and I see no reason the British establishment will not squash it like a bug. The work of a similar commission here would have also have leaked and would have been attacked with equal vigor and dishonesty by the modernists. At least in the current situation the order is closer to being an accomplishment. Its flaws are not less likely to be ironed out, which would always have been done by insiders anyway, however much more open to the public the ultimately formulated process is to be.

      I’m afraid that if the trads do not have the courage to fight this battle now that it has started, even if under less than perfect circumstances, we will never have anything like a similar chance.

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  3. Rob Stephenson says:

    David,
    You might be interested in some of the publications of The Prince’s Foundation, which I have just discovered while browsing for something else regarding the Prince of Wales.

    Click to access living-with-beauty-86d98ba4.pdf

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  4. LazyReader says:

    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.

    Second in the era of raging defecits, should the government seriously bulldoze and rebuild DC buildlings galore. Everything government builds, COSTS MORE. The US Capitol’s Visitor’s Center was supposed to cost 265 Million dollars, it ended up costing 621 Million.
    The Veterans Affair medical facility in Denver, was projected to cost 591 million, it’s now at 1.7 Billion.
    The Government spends Billions of dollars a year on hundreds of thousands of empty buildings under it’s ownership. Many of which are built in old styles of architecture

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  5. josehdz24 says:

    This read is an excellent exercise to identify logical fallacies. I can name at least 3:
    1) Attacking a straw-man: “the forces of modernism have coalesced in a high and mighty dudgeon of opposition to the order.” So the head of Notre Dame, the SAH Board, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and several classicists/preservationists are now “Modernists”?
    2) Generalizations: “Nobody today pays any attention to the fact that the Nazis liked classicism”
    3) Historical and inductive fallacy: “That says a lot more about how modern architecture saw itself in its founding era than about how classicism’s legacy should be viewed today.” Mies would have loved to work for the Third Reich, ergo Modernism = evil? What about the social concerns of Gropius and many others? Architectural styles are not inherently political. Read Paul Goldberger’s take on the issue.
    4) Argument from Ignorance: “Read The Man in the Glass House (2019), by Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, who is about as far as you can get from a classicist.” Ehmmm did you read it? Johnson was very well-versed in classicism. He knew the rules and history so well so he could break them in his PoMo face. You might want to visit his estate in Canaan…
    5) False Division: “[…] the widespread popular preference for classical and traditional architecture that has prevailed ever since modern architecture was born a century ago gives classicists a big advantage. If we have the courage to fight this battle.” Classicists of the world, unite!

    You can do better, David Brussat. This reads like a B- high-school paper.

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    • Happy to amuse you, Jose!

      1. Maybe there is a logical fallacy here, but it is not a straw-man argument. I was referring to the AIA and other organizations. Yes, they are modernist. Can you deny it? Later I refer to such groups as the SAH, the National Trust, etc., as organizations classical or sympathetic to classicism that are opposed to the executive order. The fact that some of them have basically been abed with the modernists for decades doesn’t necessarily make them modernist.

      2. That is not a generalization, it is an exaggeration for effect.

      3. These are not either kind of fallacy, except in the sense that you disagree with the conclusion. I suppose you can argue that it is a low blow to bounce the modernists’ fallacies back at them. If classical architecture is evil because Hitler liked it, then certainly it’s okay to suggest that modern architecture is evil because Mies thought Hitler ought to like it.

      Yeah? What about the social concerns of the founders? Even if they were genuine, they played no role in determining whether modern architecture could be beautiful, or that classicism’s beauty is lessened if it takes less notice of social concerns. I agree that style need not be political.

      4. Yes, I have read Lamster’s book. I’ve written several posts quoting from it. I have not denied that Johnson knew his classicism, only that his Nazi activities made him a poor advocate for modernism, and that’s why modernists have long tried to closet his history. By the way, Johnson never cared for the social concerns of modernism’s founders.

      5. False division? Those are the facts, Buster. And so yes, indeed, classicists of the world unite!

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