Tradition vs. modernism

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Some of the monumental classicism of the Federal City, in Washington, D.C. (Capitol Hill Hotel)

Bring it on.

Legislation has just been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives to block a proposed executive order that would replace a mandate favoring modernist styles for federal buildings with a new and better mandate favoring traditional styles.

The bill, H.R. 7604, introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), is called the “Democracy in Design Act” and would “ensure that the construction and acquisition of public buildings in the United States adheres to the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” The reference is to guidelines written in 1962 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which state that “an official style must be avoided.” His warning has been ignored for 58 years. An official style already exists. The proposed executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” would replace it with another official style, one that is more popular and more in keeping with the principles and ideals of the nation.

The legislation has been endorsed by the American Institute of Architects, the chief organizational arm of the field of architecture. The best thing in the AIA’s endorsement is its description of the proposed executive order as “anticipated.” A brief article on the bill in the Architectural Record used the word “expected.” Let’s hope so! It has in fact not even been signed but was leaked to the press in February, sparking a brouhaha among architects. The pandemic sunk a lively debate on the issue, but the legislation proposed on July 13 sets the stage for a resumption of festivities.

Picking up on the title of the act, the AIA statement praised Congresswoman Titus for “taking the first steps toward a more democratic approach to federal architecture.” It was a devious assertion, quietly suggesting – or rather admitting – that the federal design process has been less than fair. That would be the understatement of the week. It has been estimated that since 1962 only one of every hundred federal buildings designed under the Moynihan guidelines has been traditional in style. In fact, since traditional architecture is preferred by the vast majority of the public, you might expect a truly democratic process to reflect this. On the contrary, modernism is still regarded after a century with skepticism by most people, a failed experiment in building design and city planning, not to mention beauty.

The AIA asserted that the legislation “will ensure the federal government maintains its current neutrality on architectural styles.” What a joke! Of course, there is no such neutrality. The executive order would not maintain a nonexistent neutrality but would mandate styles preferred by the public instead of by the architectural elite. In a democracy, public taste should play a role in the design process. Under the executive order, bogus neutrality would give way to a genuine diversity of style marked by true fairness.

Representative Titus seems to be in dire need of cosponsors for her bill. The AIA has sent out a mailer asking members to urge their congressmen to sign on to the bill. The brief mailing summarizes all of the disingenuous talking points in the AIA endorsement, its press release in Architectural Record, and in the congresswoman’s statement about her bill.

Washington and Jefferson chose Greco-Roman classicism to reflect the new nation’s ideals. With an astonishing variety of styles, their choice worked perfectly for more than 150 years. The pillars of tradition spoke to we the people in clear terms widely understood, and for the ages. Modernism has offered no language to appeal to patriotic sentiment. A powerful, eloquent architectural language that speaks for all is what the executive order would re-establish, and that is what the title of the “Democracy in Design Act” seems to imply. But it is a lie.

Trump has recently proposed an executive order to protect statues. Good idea! Maybe the reply from Congress will be a “Democracy in Sculpture Act” to ensure that future statues and memorials be of abstract modernism. Let us all enjoy such blessings as Frank Gehry’s ugly Eisenhower memorial, which seems meant not to honor our 34th president but the memorial’s ridiculous architect. There was a popular uprising against it, but the establishment closed ranks and rammed it through. Its May opening was delayed by the pandemic, but has been rescheduled for September. Ike has just a couple months before it is his turn to start spinning in his grave.

Even Senator Moynihan, were he still alive, might by now be having second thoughts. In 1970, eight years after his guidelines took effect, he wrote:

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.

The official design mandate that Moynihan unwittingly created in 1962 has been precisely the failure many people predicted – corrupt in its aesthetic values and responsible for corrupting American cities in uncountable and unfathomable ways, and uglifying the built environment. The American public has suffered too long. It’s way past time for change.

So it is to be classicism vs. modernism at last, and this could not be a better time to hold a national debate over architecture that reflects many of the broader issues that America faces as she heads into a presidential election.

Bring it on.

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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3 Responses to Tradition vs. modernism

  1. LazyReader says:

    I’ve asked, the idea many assert Modernism and classicism cant co-exist.This is Untrue

    Like

    • It is untrue that tradition and modernism cannot coexist. They can, but it’s very unlikely, and the modernists have no desire to coexist. A traditional street is almost always degraded by the insertion of a modernist building. You show a rare example of it working, but the building is very far from stark raving modernist anyway. Its ovular window edges would be improved by being closer to the color of the original trad facade.

      Like

  2. LazyReader says:

    If you think modernism is great, look around, DC is littered with it. Built in the heyday of the bureaucratic explosion post World War II. Federal Triangle and the federal complex is littered with these monstrosities. I’ve been accused often on this blog; that I tend to “stray from the topic at hand” mostly for being political. I disagree. Culture is downstream from politics there isn’t an issue that doesn’t in this day and age that sadly doesn’t have a political motivation. Architecture is no different. Especially Government mandated architecture.
    “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.”

    Building design is far less detrimental to factors of our downfall. Our biggest enemies are our reckless spending and constant warring. An honest examination of the history of US manipulation in the 20th century of internal politics, affairs and elections including Assassinations, from Korea, Vietnam to Middle East, would reveal alot about our presidents closet skeletons. Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan in particular. The entire tumultuous circumstance of the Middle East today can be traced back to 1953. Where US and UK assisted in the ousting of Iran’s democratically elected Leader and installed a dictator who ran the place until the 1979 Islamic fundamentalist takeover. ALL the consequences of the present can be attributed to this horrible act of foreign interference.
    It’s not easy to demonstrate how our policies TODAY serve any national interest at all when all they do is embroil us into instigating nations further and bankrupt us with more military deployments to countries which were stuck policing forever. The Founding fathers had the Right idea; Keep
    yourself Far removed from the foreign affairs of other countries.
    – Do not meddle in their politics and internal affairs or elections
    – Do not aid their revolutionaries or finance their agendas
    – And DAMN SURE DO NOT arm their constituents; those weapons have a nasty habit of turning back against the the original providers

    Like

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