EO: The two paths ahead

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Proposal to rebuild Penn Station in its original design. (Jeff Stikeman/National Civic Art Society)

The draft executive order that is stirring within the Trump administration is forcing classicists in the field of architecture to choose one of two paths forward. The path that goes through the E.O., if it is not already throttled in its cradle, will give a boost to beauty in federal buildings, and open the way to challenge the dominant architectural culture. If this path is blocked, the status quo of modern architecture and its dominance in the field will continue for decades, possibly centuries.

Modernists, whose control of the establishment is threatened by the E.O., recognize the danger to their interests and are fighting it tooth and nail. Curiously, some classicists and traditionalists have taken up cudgels against their own liberation from modernism’s hegemony. They are undermining the unity needed to prevail on behalf of beauty.

Perhaps the most extreme example is the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The ICAA’s opposition was predictable, since the board that runs it from New York City sliced “advocacy” from its mission statement a year or so ago. No longer may chapters support or oppose relevant developments under the ICAA imprimatur, not even in their own regions. We are muzzled.

Why am I still in this organization, anyway? Why does it even exist?

The ICAA should don its thinking cap and consider the two alternative paths facing classical architecture.

The executive order, if signed by Trump, would represent an unexpected but powerful intervention in a hopeless situation – virtually a deus ex machina that offers traditional architecture a path to recapture its dominance in the field, which lasted many centuries until modern architects ousted tradition from the establishment after World War II for no good reason.

The chief architect of the General Services Administration recently resigned, and for the E.O. to be effective, the president must appoint a sympathetic replacement, and he, in turn, must replace or neutralize holdover GSA officials and managers who refuse to abide by the new dispensation. If that does not happen, the E.O. will be a dead letter.

If it does happen, the GSA will snap its fingers and battalions of fake Parthenons will begin marching down Washington’s broad avenues.

Only kidding.

If the E.O. is signed and classicists at the GSA are able to put it into practice, replacing the virtual mandate in favor of modern architecture in effect since 1962, federal courthouses, post offices, office buildings, monuments and other projects designed to please rather than to offend will begin to rise in the city of Pierre L’Enfant and in cities and towns around the country.

With each newly announced traditional project, in or out of Washington, modernist architecture critics will howl, and each time they do, the average member of the public will recognize how totally ridiculous are the modernist claims that classical architecture is “not of our time” or “copying the past” or “fascist.” They will judge the new buildings by their actual appearance. (As if the average person is stupid enough to believe that a building or its style is responsible for what takes place under its roof!)

Each building that rises up against the backdrop of this “discussion” will help to confirm the public’s natural preference for buildings that look like what they are supposed to be.

The executive order’s provisions would force federal officials to bring the public into the design process from which they’d previously been excluded. The modernist mandate from 1962, written by U.S. senator-to-be Daniel Patrick Moynihan, reads in part as follows:

Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa. … The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.

Nothing in there about the public! During the decades since 1962, the built environment has been substantially degraded by modern architecture in and out of Washington. Modernists like to insist that the public is not interested in architecture. In fact, architecture is not interested in the public. Dismay at buildings that spurn conventional ideas of beauty, and the public’s exclusion from the process by which these junkyard dogs arise, has caused the public to tune out the built environment as a defense mechanism against the ennui of experiencing modern architecture – in part because individuals know that they can do nothing about it. That will change.

And once they are included in decisions regarding federal architecture they will expect to be included in local decisions about public architecture, and, at last, private architecture. This will force developers to pay more attention to public taste, and to facilitate the public’s involvement in the development process – because the public votes for the politicians who get money from developers and influence what and how they can build projects.

Once this process gets under way, the architecture profession and its firms will be forced to diversify their stylistic offerings to clients, private and public. That will force architecture schools to broaden their curricula to include classical coursework. It is not widely known that today there is only one [1] major architecture school that offers a classical curriculum: the University of Notre Dame. This will change.

Because classical architecture proudly uses ornament to embellish buildings, the changes described above will reform the largely monolithic character of the architectural profession. A revival will follow in jobs for artists, artisans and other makers creating decoration to replace the blank abstractions of modernism – a tepid sterility which fosters illness, anomie, and a tolerance among citizens for treatment as cogs in the machinery of society.

Because the public has a better (and more sophisticated) sense of taste than most design professionals marinated in modernism, public involvement in their cities’ development process will lead to more attractive buildings, and eventually to a greater affection for government buildings, and maybe, perhaps, respect for government itself.

The late Sir Roger Scruton wrote in The Classical Vernacular (1994) that the classically designed street “is humanly proportioned, safe, gregarious, and quietly vigilant, [and] constantly reminds the pedestrian that he is not alone, that he is in a world of human encounter, and that he must match the good manners of the [street] that guides him.”

The producer of the Star Wars films, George Lucas, reflected at least a subconscious recognition of this phenomenon when he created traditional habitats for his good guys and modernist habitats (such as the Death Star) for his evil characters. So maybe, in the end, classical architecture will help America avoid the authoritarian future predicted by so many elite thinkers. (I ended my last post on this subject, “Parsing classical creativity,” with the hope that classicism could prevent authoritarianism, and then a joke: “But don’t tell that to President Trump!”)

To top off this litany of almost certain results from adopting “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” as U.S. policy – no more a “top-down mandate” than its predecessor – it would make America beautiful again.

Okay. So what if classicists refuse to unify behind the proposed E.O. and it dies for lack of support even among a large swath of classicism’s advocates?

The status quo would prevail, certainly for decades, possibly for centuries. Today, classicists mainly seek to advance by placing more classical classes – not coursework, let alone curricula – in more modernist architecture schools. Recently, classicists breathed a huge sigh of relief that Notre Dame hired a traditional architect/urbanist, Stefanos Polyzoides, as dean of its school of architecture. It became classicist only a few decades ago after a palace coup at the school, and that could be reversed, theoretically, at any time, even though Notre Dame’s is the only program whose graduates can count on getting a job in architecture right after graduation. Meanwhile, Catholic University, in D.C., is looking for a new dean of architecture amid some doubt, apparently, that a classicist will be hired or that the new slate of classical coursework at the school will even survive. Not too long ago, the Boston Architecture College addressed funding issues by simply ousting its minimalist classical program, and even refused to let the ICAA exhibit in its lobby. If the E.O. goes down, more of this is what classicists can expect.

If the E.O. dies, so will hope that classicism can expand upon the slow but steady growth it has seen over the past two or three decades. Today, the classical revival is based mainly on rich people who, like most people, tend to prefer classical or traditional styles over modernist styles. Whether they hire quality designers or otherwise, they hire classical architects to build their mansions. The wealthy have been the source of most classical commissions for decades, but the public doesn’t get to see the work. The ongoing debate between classicism and modernism (which modernists absurdly claim is over) may be said to have begun with ICAA founder Henry Hope Reed’s 1959 book The Golden City, and was given a boost, at least in Britain, by Prince Charles’s 1984 attack on the carbuncles of modernism. By killing off the E.O., modern architecture will retain the whip hand. New traditional architecture that the public can see, such as civic buildings, will remain rare. Such new buildings are important. They teach the public that traditional architecture is not lost to the past but is an equally valid vision of the future.

I’ve placed considerable stock in the recent proposal to rebuild Penn Station using the 1910 design of Charles Follen McKim. It would feature the sort of mechanical upgrading that has been a tradition of architecture for centuries. This is a tradition that most modernists pretend not to be aware of, as if new Georgian houses need to be fitted, still, with lightning rods on the roof and outhouses in the back yard. Anyway, the Penn Station plan, which is already a long shot under the current modernist regime, seems the most obvious prospect for erecting a major traditional building that millions of citizens will see, offering the possibility of a classical revival reminiscent of the City Beautiful movement sparked by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago. The new World Trade Center at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan might have had a classically designed rebuild – a traditional proposal was offered by the firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery – but the rules called for “architecture of its time.” Yale just erected two beautiful new residential campuses in the Collegiate Gothic style (designed by Robert A.M. Stern’s robust firm), but how many non-Yalies travel to New Haven to see it?

So, short of some other kind of deus ex machina, what sort of possibilities will arise over the next decades to stoke the dreams of Americans who want their country to be beautiful again? Hope springs eternal, but the options are few and very difficult to imagine. Yes, the federal government is working to extend a set of rail platforms from Penn Station into the old historic post office next door (emblazoned with the motto “Neither snow nor rain … “). It was also designed by McKim, Mead & White, and is now known as Moynihan Train Hall after the creator of the modernist mandate under which America has groaned since 1962. As senator, Moynihan often went to bat for Amtrak funding. The station that bears his name is lovely, but it is certainly not new classicism, not the role model needed to give the classical revival a boost.

If the Trump administration were to back the plan for a MM&W rebuild of Penn Station, would leading classicists oppose it because of its connection to Trump? I hope not. And if not, then why do so many of classicism’s leading lights oppose the E.O.? There is no plausible reason.

Speaking of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, what did he think of his handiwork in writing the 1962 GSA principles mandating ugly federal buildings? Here’s what he had to say in 1970, just eight years later:

Twentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.


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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19 Responses to EO: The two paths ahead

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

  2. Mike DiLauro says:

    I suppose that this is really appropro of nothing but in planning a trip to Italy in the fall where we will be travelling primarily by train that the Milan Centrale Station is evocative of the old Penn Station and in some respects is even more spectacular. How did that station survive and prosper with what appear to be frequent modernizations while ours did not? Some answers are obvious (greater respect and understanding of culture and the arts; heavier reliance on train travel) but I’m thinking that some are not. Thoughts?


    • Mike, there is a very interesting 2001 essay by Theodore Dalrymple called “The Uses of Corruption” about the differences between Britain and Italy. He argues that Italy has become more prosperous than Britain in recent decades because its system of corruption facilitates getting things done whereas Britain’s relative absence of corruption, and nosy Parker officialdom, slows things down. It’s much more complicated than that, but he places preservation into the context of his argument, and I think the phenomenon of Italy’s respect for its past factors into that, and it may be what saved that train station. Here’s a link to my discussion of Dalrymple’s essay, which contains a link to the essay. Highly worth reading!



  3. Dear David, this is a great summing up as the dust settles.

    Outside of the US we are watching agog to see what happens next. FYI here are links to 2 recent radio interviews on the same subject that I found on the tunein app. In the past when I have searched for classical architecture on this app, there would have been nothing found. So at the very least this potential EO has put a spotlight on the subject.


    Below are the links I mentioned

    Listen to Why Classical Architecture Matters on TuneIn

    Listen to Make America Classical Again: Executive Order to Mandate Federal Architecture Style on TuneIn


    • Thanks for sending, Hugh. It does raise one’s spirits to know that people are thinking about this topic. But it’s depressing how poorly the second one expresses the ideas behind the EO. I am listening to the one expressly on the EO, but have not yet listened to “Why Classical Architecture Matters.” I hope it is better. I think people are reasonably sophisticated in their taste for buildings, but decades of propaganda have stripped people of the ability to express simple truths about architecture. They just don’t have the words for it anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The interview featuring Catesby Leigh is a lot better I thought, but it’s still interesting to hear this topic being discussed by new voices. I think it helps a lot to get the message out of the echo chamber that we can sometimes get stuck in. Sometimes hearing modernists discussing traditionalism can be most illuminating! 😂


  4. George Ranalli says:

    Dear David,

    You might want to see the film Motherless Brooklyn. It contains a CGI recreation of the interior of Penn Station! It’s really something to see as if it was still there!!


    Best George

    Confidential Message Sent by George Ranalli


    • George, thanks for letting me know about this. I viewed the trailer. Is it a good movie? How much time is spent in or out of Penn Station?

      Have you seen that wonderful video that stitches together film clips of scenes in Penn Station from a couple dozen old movies? It’s more than worth a look. You can search for my post that links to it on my blog.


  5. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    One caveat about the idea of letting citizens decide on public architecture. The selection process should be a community wide decision, not a committee. Reason is, such “art ” committees tend to be peopled mostly with”artists” and art history majors, both groups invariably kindly disposed towards the modernist project. Decisions about public art and architecture should be in the hands of the general public, not miseducated elites.


    • That is a very, very valid point, Milton, which I thought I’d made clearly enough in speaking of how the development process would change in cities and towns. Thank you for further clarifying the point.


  6. realfinishes says:

    David, I think you’re stating openly what many others have been concerned about privately. Our institutions that have acted as repositories and stewards of the traditional and Classical knowledge are on shaky ground. The INTBAU USA chapter has been inactive since its founding. It looks as though Notre Dame School of Architecture has been granted a reprieve yet as you point out The Institute of Classical Architecture has withdrawn significantly from Henry Hope Reed’s core mission of education, advocacy, and commitment to the civic realm. However imperfectly conceived or subject to criticism the E.O may be at least the NCAS is doing something.

    In my opinion the need is making itself readily apparent for a new institution with two principal functions. The first esoteric function is as a college of fellows that acts as both guardian and transmitter of the Classical tradition through scholarship and education. The second related, though distinct exoteric function is advocacy. I envisage an institution not concerned with awards or tours, neither dependent for their existence on fancy dinners and cocktail parties, nor subject to the whims of university or government politics. A foundation so built to endure and navigate our civilisation through the next century of challenges much like the material counterparts of the buildings we so much admire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funny you should mention fancy dinners and cocktail parties, Patrick. I’ve voiced that complaint at meetings of our New England chapter, on whose board I sit. The national claims that it wants to avoid advocacy in order to avoid lawsuits, but nothing we were planning (and our chapter is leading the opposition to banning advocacy) would seem to be unprotected as free speech by the First Amendment. I think they just don’t want any awkward moments at their fancy parties.

      I agree that an organization such as you describe is necessary. I think, but am not certain, that one is being contemplated by someone we both know, and I will say more offline.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. LazyReader says:

    While the destruction of penn station is tragic, it was not a case of it outliving it’s usefullness, When they built it; it was under assumption they would put a tower above it in it’s later years, the bottom would function as a station, and Lobby, the tower would serve as office space. Unfortunately as NYC enters fiscal oblivion rebuilding a train station as it was is not a wise use of spending priorities no matter the aesthetic. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in a heap of financial trouble. It is more than $40 billion in debt; it has a $60 billion maintenance backlog; plus it has more than $20 billion in unfunded health care obligations. The debt and unfunded pension and health care obligations should be found in the consolidated financial statements that most transit agencies post on their web sites. Maintenance backlogs are harder to find as government agencies don’t want to admit they’ve been neglecting their physical infrastructure. The bottom line is that rail transit is extremely expensive and the city should have replaced the subway with rubber tire metro years ago.

    Rebuilding Penn Station, I would support in spirit, but the cost of the structure, building in New York City, something that massive would push 3-4 Billion dollars. Read Bent Flyvbjerg’s Oxford University book “The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management”. 90% of all megaprojects go overbudget; to the tune often 30% average or more.
    1: Megaprojects are inherently risky due to complexity and long time horizons
    2: Projects are often led by inexperienced planners who keep changing over the course of the project
    3: Decision making involves many actors and stakeholders with conflicting interests
    4: Technologies and designs are often non-standard, which not only makes projects more difficult but persuades managers that their projects are unique and so they don’t learn from others’ experiences;
    5: People often commit to projects at an early stage leaving alternative analyses weak or absent;
    6: Large sums of money lead to rent-seeking behavior and optimism bias;
    7: Project scope is likely to change significantly over time;
    8: Projects are particularly vulnerable to black swans;
    9: Planners rarely account for complexity and black swans, which is why projects go over budget and under perform;
    10: As a result, misinformation about benefits, costs, and risks is the norm throughout project development.

    If someone has grandiose plans to make something with their own money and resources on the line……..who cares if it fails. When government has the same ambitions, Watch your wallet. Truly, there’s but one lesson you should learn about megaprojects, and that is: for the most part; Don’t do them. This is especially true for governments. Everything they build costs more.


    • Many of those are valid points, Lazy, but if the federal government backs it with funding, and private sources raise money by redeveloping, with air rights, the area immediately surrounding the station, then perhaps some of those debts and maintenance deficiencies can be rolled back by the (seemingly) inevitable gold rush sparked by making New York great again. It is possible. Calatrava’s extravagance cost $4 billion but there was no spinoff. And, first, the city and state will need new maximum leaders. Plus, NYC already has “rubber-tire metro” known as buses.


      • LazyReader says:

        The bottom line is that rail transit is extremely expensive. While proposals to reign in spending; like fix union work rules and possible cuts or privitization among other things is worthwhile, it is not going to free up enough money for MTA to solve its $60 billion maintenance backlog while also repaying its $40 billion debt.
        Those subways are contained entirely within New York City. They were built by New York City. They are owned by New York City. I don’t think the state and federal taxpayer should bear the burden for repair, let alone paying for a carbon copy of personal nostalgia. What happened Penn Station while tragic was a byproduct of then evolving transportation technologies, the Jet and the arrival of the Interstate. Even in it’s heyday Penn Station was very expensive to maintain, a 150 foot high cavernous space of marble and travertine, you built a palace and it costs what a palace cost for upkeep.

        If the city can’t exist without its subways, and it refuses to pay to maintain it’s subways they own, then maybe the answer is that it shouldn’t exist, at least not with two million jobs located in seven square miles on Manhattan. The island would de-densify and jobs might migrate elsewhere making manhattan slightly more affordable; a less congested, less expensive place to live.


        • I reiterate, Lazy, that you have valid points. There are always many reasons to be against something and many to be for it, and they may not weigh equally in the balance. But, either way, they do not always reflect reality, which is always very much more complex and difficult to know. So I will continue to support rebuilding Penn Station as it was originally designed if the will and a way can be found. (Someday someone is going to use this comment against me!)


          • LazyReader says:

            I will support it too, in spirit. I just don’t see the need to rebuild a transit station when the transit lines they accommodate are in a state of financial mismanagement and physical disrepair and thus require more immediate attention.

            DB reply: I guess there is no “need,” but a rebuild would be profoundly helpful to NYC and the nation (and the world) because it would (absent the EO) jumpstart a classical revival, if anything can.


  8. George Ranalli says:

    Dear David,

    You might want to see the film Motherless Brooklyn. It contains a CGI recreation of the interior of Penn Station! It’s really something to see as if it was still there!!

    Best George

    Confidential Message Sent by George Ranalli


    Liked by 1 person

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