It will be of some modest good cheer for most readers of this blog to learn that a classical tennis pavilion is under construction in the back yard of the White House. The project has been led by First Lady Melania Trump, who, before leaving school to pursue a modeling career in Milan, was enrolled in architecture school at the University of Ljubljana, in her native Slovenia.
Fortunately, she did not get a degree in architecture (as she initially claimed); in most cases, such a document confers upon the graduate little beyond poor taste. Mrs. Trump did not design the tennis pavilion, but her taste appears to have influenced the design created in-house by the National Park Service. After submittal to the National Capital Planning Commission last year, it was approved.
The facility is described in the June 6, 2019, approval of the project as “heavily influenced by the White House architecture,” adding that it will “incorporate architectural elements such as a colonnade, large floor-to-ceiling windows and fanlight windows in the façades, [will be] clad in limestone and have a copper roof.”
No doubt the White House boasts all of those features (except that it is sandstone painted white), but to me the tennis pavilion looks less like the Executive Mansion and more like a tiny version of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon, her hideaway (or cottage, as they say in Newport) on the grounds of the Palais de Versailles. The Petit Trianon was completed during the Louis XV administration, 32 years before the White House opened in 1800.
Of course, Antoinette, queen to Louis XVI, was guillotined during the French Revolution. She was not exactly a woman of the people. She redesigned the Petit Trianon to minimize contact with her servants. Her “Let them eat cake” remark, even if falsely attributed, further damaged her reputation. America’s current first lady has committed no such sins against propriety, and indeed, in spite of her experience in architecture school, has superb taste – especially compared with her husband, whose taste for classical interiors is marred by a fetish for gold leaf. His taste in exteriors is, it seems, not even classical.
Nevertheless, the Donald has been implicated in a plot to inflict beauty on Washington, D.C. On Feb. 5, a proposed White House executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” was leaked to the architectural press. The leak inspired a raucous debate between modernists and classicists that has evaporated since the onset of the coronavirus crisis. Still, classicists hope that the first lady’s tennis pavilion is evidence that the White House supports the E.O., that it has not been strangled in its crib, and that the discussion of its merits will resume when the coronavirus departs, after which the order will be signed by the president.
The National Civic Art Society, a Washington think tank, is believed to have drafted the executive order, but who, if anyone, put the bug in its ear?
Dezeen, a magazine devoted to bad architecture, in a March 11 article “Melania Trump unveils classical Tennis Pavilion at White House,” with no evidence, blamed the E.O. on the president himself:
President Trump, Melania Trump’s husband, expressed his love for classical architecture earlier this year in a proposed draft order that would require all new federal buildings to be built in the style.
Well, I hope so. I hope that rather than leaping to conclusions from the mere existence of a proposed White House executive order, Dezeen’s Eleanor Gibson has ironclad sources able to confirm that it arose from President Trump’s “love for classical architecture.”
Maybe. But I think it more likely that his wife put him up to it.