Parsing classical creativity

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Image from ICAA course catelogue shows infinite variability of classicism.

The proposed executive order encouraging classical architecture for federal buildings in Washington and elsewhere, if adopted by President Trump, would replace Kennedy-era guidelines that have encouraged modern architecture for federal buildings since 1962. Enough time has passed to declare modern architecture a failed experiment in federal placemaking – it fails to promote the national dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability that are the four goals of the JFK guidelines.

To need an “official style” is surely regrettable, but we already have one and the question is whether it is time to embrace a new one. The National Civic Art Society, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that got the ball rolling, is to be commended for its masterstroke in bringing the topic to the public’s attention. Having Donald Trump’s name associated with this initiative is problematic, but no more difficult than any effort to turn federal design back to its traditional roots would be absent a connection to Trump.

Who should be credited is less important than whether the initiative makes sense. The public prefers traditional to modernist forms of architecture by large margins, and this is a democracy, so citizens deserve a voice in the design of their surroundings that they have not had for decades, if ever. This is especially so for federal government structures, which, more than any others, are supposed to reflect the broader civic weal.

Modernists have been unable to articulate a defense of their style for a very long time. They have not needed to. Modern architecture’s representatives in the academy have had virtually total control of architectural education for more than half a century. The architectural media kowtow exclusively to the system of starchitecture that has dominated the field, and refuse to demand an accounting from modernists, whether for individual buildings or for the generally tedious built environment.

Threatened by the proposed executive order, they have hauled out the usual old chestnuts: Classical architecture is to blame for World War I! Classical architecture was the style of the Third Reich! New classical buildings in the modern age are like doctors who still use bleeding to treat patients, or, as a Washington Post editorial put it, “the architectural equivalent of requiring federal workers to wear knee breeches and a tricorn hat.”

Most of those arguments could be knocked over by a barely sentient fifth-grader. But a pair of related arguments is more serious and proponents of the design change in federal architecture must address them directly. These two arguments are that classical architecture stifles innovation and that modern architecture is scientific.

In fact, recent scientific research backs up longstanding assumptions that classical and traditional styles of architecture are closer than modernist ones to nature, and that humans are naturally averse to modern architecture. For example, Nikos Salingaros, a University of Texas professor of mathematics, has identified processes in the development and articulation of traditional architecture that resemble the biological processes of reproduction and evolution. Ann Sussman, a Cambridge architect and design researcher, has used eye-tracking technology to measure the extent to which the human eye focuses in on ornament – especially shapes that bring the human face to mind – and avoids the blank stretches that constitute so much of modern architecture.

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Granoff Center at Brown.

Opponents of a return to classicism for federal architecture declare that modernist innovation – exemplified by, perhaps, Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, which looks like a gigantic accordion hit by a major earthquake – would give way to the conformity of the classical orders from ancient Greece and Rome. This concern is mere prejudice, springing from a historically narrow definition of innovation and creativity.

Modern art and architecture advance by creative leaps that seek to be unique in the history of a particular medium. Paintings where human characteristics are represented by cubes, for example, or buildings whose massing seems to defy gravity. Each artist distinguishes him or herself from others by qualities that jump out at the observer.

Classical art and architecture, on the other hand, seek to advance by steps that bring greater reach and effectiveness to the methods common to a particular medium, such as, in painting, a new type of brush stroke, a more realistic way of depicting human skin tones, or a new composition for oil colors that dry more swiftly on canvas; or, in architecture, a more coherent method of cornering Ionic columns in a portico, or new techniques for measuring the effectiveness of angles by which pitched roofs shed snow.

The mostly small, integrated advances of traditional artistic endeavor add, year by year, to the virtuosity of each art, and the ability to understand and enjoy them advances no faster, generally, than the capacity of observers to perceive the advancements. In modern architecture the cascading pace of advancement contributes to confusion and ennui in the built environment, whereas in classical architecture the pace is slow, acting as an anchor of stability as the pace of change speeds up in a scary world.

The draft executive order, by slowing down aesthetic change in federal buildings, may contribute to a less chaotic and more orderly constitutional republic, not to mention one whose beauty is more easily comprehended by the broad mass of its citizens. The late Sir Roger Scruton wrote that “the classical idiom does no so much impose unity as make diversity agreeable.”

Given trends in federal architecture today and the look of cities generally over the past half a century, the draft order may have the effect of slowing down the atrophy of our civic life, and an approaching authoritarianism in our governance. But don’t tell that to President Trump!

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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16 Responses to Parsing classical creativity

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  6. kathleen says:

    Not averse to strong argument, I’ll weigh in to say this needs further thinking:

    “The public prefers traditional to modernist forms of architecture by large margins, and this is a democracy, so citizens deserve a voice in the design of their surroundings that they have not had for decades, if ever. ”

    Citizens, residents and users all deserve a great deal of voice in shaping where they live, and I would leave “democracy” out of it for a moment, because democracy really is a great many more things than majority rule. But what is most problematic about the argument is that federalism, as is being currently thought of in the U.S.A., actually overrides local feeling for one’s surroundings and what one lives with every day.

    So, given that the US is a federation, and very much wants to remain one, by consent of all its locals with rare exception, what ideas do we want our federal buildings to express about this political agreement among us? That is the question I would ask.

    There are definitely good arguments to be made for asking that our federal buildings express a continuity with our federal history, its founding ideas, its driving ideas — there is a lot to work with there. I can definitely also see rejecting (because it has been pretty disastrous tried everywhere) of using Federal buildings to showcase native born architects.

    But of course what would be a real loss is to forget is the boldness, the revolutionary impulse, the forward thrusting nature of the American founding vision and its unprecedented elevation of individual freedom of mind that cannot be taken out of what American history truly is. So even with Trump’s name off it, even under the guise of some other majority rule dictate, I would still want guidelines that encourage individual freedom to create and which fully respect the localism that gives meaning to federalism and the vision of united states.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathleen, I’m afraid I must reject your suggestion that since democracy has many meanings, it is not appropriate to use its primary meaning in this context. Secondly, I do not think you understand the meaning of federalism under our Constitution. It means each level maintaining separate but interacting authorities, devolving upward and downward, especially between the state level and the federal level. Communities maintain authority on their own level within each state’s structure, and this executive order would not diminish it, or the innovative impulses at that or any other level. They would be redirected in the case of federal buildings, with even modernist exceptions possible, but federal buildings are only a small percentage of buildings at the local and community level. If you mean by “forward thrusting,” “boldness” and “revolutionary impulse” to suggest modernism belongs in the range of styles favored by the federal government because it reflects the founding American vision, I think you are mistaken, and that you have the very same narrow definition of innovation and creativity that I tried to elucidate in this post. Read it again.


      • kathleen says:

        I disagree with your interpretation that democracy’s “primary meaning” is majority rule. Disagreements don’t have to be resolved, but I won’t accept your terms! I do understand the federalism of the United States, so if you want to advance your argument about federal buildings and this federal directive, then you need to better articulate why the proposed new federal directive doesn’t diminish local input or constrict local creativity when it comes to the construction of new federal buildings — which is the only issue under discussion. I was not talking about other local construction. Read my post again!


        • I was not using the word democracy to mean majority rule, Kathleen. I was using it in its more basic sense of rule by the people. The exec. order increases local input from almost the current near zero to the extent, as declared, that locals, and not necessarily experts or professionals as is the case today, will be involved in the consultative process for federal architecture both inside and outside of Washington. To the extent that Brutalist and Deconstructivist architecture is banned (which is, I think, more totally than less aggressive modernist styles), local and other creativity is constricted; but since an entire genre of traditional architecture extending thousands of years back is encouraged by the exec. order, and modern architecture is not absolutely banned, the result of the order would be to reduce existing constriction on creativity. I don’t know if it can be stated more clearly than that. Plus, if you will read my post (yours is a comment, not a post), you will understand that by its nature, the many small creative steps that traditional architecture involves result in far more creativity, building by building, than the leaps of creativity for which modernism is noted. I see you did not reread my post, or you would already understand that. I do admit that it is a joy jousting with you, Kathleen. Let’s have more!


          • kathleen says:

            You asked for more…

            Thanks for elaborating the specifics of the provisions in the proposed executive order in how local input will be expanded, which is more a persuasive argument that federal buildings deserve a more distinctly democratic process in their creation than claiming that classical architecture is popular while modern isn’t, so therefore…

            My experience of living in Italy is that “new” classical when badly done is not only unpopular (and popularly derided), but that there also is a positive craving in Italy for good modern architecture, and a popular celebration when it succeeds. Italians have been suffering several decades of stagnation, so successful modern architecture in public spaces really does inspire optimism and pride, and doesn’t diminish in any way the Italian passion for preservation of all its architecture (even bad architecture gets saved!).

            I don’t know how you get around the worry that by outright banning some styles, and without an express and unyielding commitment to artistic independence, bids for federal architecture will be avoided by the best architects and pursued by hacks, and that some hacks will worm their way into becoming the favored hacks of the state. And what we end up with is hackneyed architecture. I don’t dispute we’ve defacto had a system that produces lots of bad buildings. I’m just not sure this answer avoids being simply reactionary.

            Having these conversations has got me thinking of my several trips to Vienna, where these arguments and discourses took shape in quite instructive ways during the hollowing out of the Habsburg empire. Part of my problem with ideas from DC about what should be the Federal style is not that Trump is presently running the show there but that all of official DC won’t admit it is running an empire (distinctly at odds with our Federal constitution). So I fear what will result is not inspiring buildings that reinforce life in a democracy, but mausoleums that project dead imperial weight.


    • My apologies, Duo. I am taking your space for my reply to Kathleen, who immediately precedes you.

      Kathleen, I don’t think a description of the increased public input into federal buildings is as persuasive an argument for a more popular over a less popular style as the idea that in a democracy that would be more appropriate. But I’ll let that slide.

      I envy your stay in Italy. Beautiful place! How long? Where? My soon-to-be wife and I took a sort of pre-honeymoon to Venice, Vienna, Prague and Amsterdam in 2005, which was, alas, my last trip to Italy. I cannot say whether you are right or wrong about the popularity of modern architecture in Italy. I would only caution you that it might resemble the case of Victorian architecture, which has been deemed to have gone through a long period of unpopularity among the public when, in fact, it is (I think) that it was unpopular among the intellectual class with its newfound modernism, and not unpopular at all with the actual public at large. Maybe that’s the case in Italy, maybe not. I have no way of knowing. You should read Theodore Dalrymple’s long essay on the differences between Italy and Britain as relates to corruption. Very interesting. Spoiler alert: Italy wins bigly.

      How do you get around the fact that bad traditional architecture may be blamed upon the modernists’ almost entirely successful effort to stamp out traditional curricula in architecture schools here in America and indeed around the world? I think traditional self-education – not literally self, but small local teaching organizations – is bringing classical design and building techniques back. There will of course be some bad trad in the new dispensation for federal architecture (if it comes about), but not as much as even many classicists fear. For one thing, there are not all that many federal buildings that go up on a year-to-year basis. Furthermore, the implementation of the executive order will incent, if not force, many architecture schools to add trad curricula, which will expand quality work. (I’m sure you know that there is only one full classical curriculum in America today, at Notre Dame. Its graduates always get jobs immediately, as is not the case for most architecture schools.) I don’t think the likelihood is large that more hacks will be competing for federal contracts, quite the reverse, because in my opinion modernist architects are almost all hacks anyway, with little real direct architectural knowledge and few real principles – but that’s just me. … Reactionary? What do you mean by that?

      I really don’t know what to make of your final point about a so-called American empire. I think it is overwrought, and in any event has no bearing on architecture. I take you at your word that Trump does not influence the ideas that you are expressing to me. I know that’s not the case with many who opine on both sides against the executive order. I see a much more optimistic scenario resulting, as I expressed in the final paragraph of my post, which concluded with a jokey reference to Trump if you will recall.


  7. Lewis Dana says:

    Sorry, did not mean to post anonymously in re: the new world of mausoleums for post offices, federal court buildings, VA hospitals and army bases.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Anonymous says:

    Bring on the mausoleums.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. LazyReader says:

    I’ll give credit to the modernists; they do have the ability to imagine and conjure up new shapes and forms. To the Modernists……it begs the question, Can the classicists do something completely new in terms of iteration?
    Can modernist and classical be mixed?
    This is an example of NO



    Liked by 1 person

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