Confusion to Trump’s E.O.?

U.S. Supreme Court, a classical design by Cass Gilbert. (billmoyers.com)

“Confusion to Boney” was a toast raised by the British Navy in the Napoleonic era. No doubt “Confusion to Trump’s E.O.” is a toast raised today by modernists fearful of the president’s draft executive order favoring classical styles for federal architecture. The order remains unsigned, however, and the next administration remains undetermined, so confusion does indeed reign over the fate of the E.O.

It is possible but unlikely that a Biden administration would carry out a classical mandate, but it seems the General Services Administration may already have got the memo to proceed anyway, signature or no. As reported in my September post “Animal spirits of the E.O.,” two proposed federal courthouses, in Huntsville, Ala., and in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., are already on track to be built in “the classical style.” Wording in their RFQs could have been lifted directly from the E.O.

This was heartening indeed, yet I was doubtful that it was significant. Classically styled courthouses have recently been built in Tuscaloosa and Mobile in spite of the official decree favoring modernism since 1962. A bill in Congress to block the proposed E.O., should it be signed, has been introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), but not passed. Still, a recent CityLab article called “Trump’s defeat did not stop his ‘ban’ on modern architecture,” by Kriston Capps, has raised my spirits about prospects for a mandate favoring classicism.

The subhead for this article reads: “The president never signed a controversial ‘Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again‘ executive order. But a neoclassical-only building mandate is still happening.”

Of course, it is not a “neoclassical-only” mandate. It would favor traditional design, and yet would allow local circumstances to guide the selection of an architect. But let’s allow the critic to have his little prevarication.

For, while Capps is a standard-issue mod-symp architecture critic, his article presents a relatively straightforward look at the political forces arrayed for and against the E.O. in particular and a revival of classical architecture in general. And yet I was startled by the degree to which Capps himself seems truly concerned that the spirit of the E.O. may have already become entrenched at the GSA.

[T]he forces that [Trump’s] White House set in motion could outlive his administration: The GSA appears to have adopted a modernism ban, without any authorization in place. What seemed to be a pipe dream for admirers of classical architecture back in February now looks like procurement policy at the federal agency that manages office space and needs for the U.S. government.

Let’s hope he’s correct.

(In that passage, Capps links to a brilliant essay on classicism and the E.O. by critic Catesby Leigh that is well worth reading.)

And it may be that the E.O., whether or not signed by Trump, could serve a prospective Biden administration as a symbol of unity after a terribly divisive election. A survey conducted by the Harris Poll in October found that classical architecture is preferred to modern architecture by ratios of two- and three-to-one among Americans of almost every demographic stripe. For that matter, if Trump manages to overturn Biden’s apparent victory, the E.O. could serve the same purpose of seeking comity during his second administration.

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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27 Responses to Confusion to Trump’s E.O.?

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  26. I wrote a comment letter to Dina Titus and copied my local rep, questioning the soundness (and the hypocrisy) of the Titus bill. Here it is FYI:

    July 27, 2020

    Representative Dina Titus
    2464 Rayburn House Office Building
    Washington, DC 20515

    Dear Representative Titus,

    RE: Comments on HR 7604, “Democracy in Design Act”

    I write as a researcher and educator in architecture and urban planning, currently with appointments at Arizona State University (urban planning) and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm (architecture). I am also a practitioner in planning and design, with a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology. My areas of specialty include public involvement in planning and design, architectural design theory, evidence-based design, scenario-based planning, and urban and architectural form and its impacts.

    First, I want to endorse the sentiment expressed by Jane Frederick, AIA 2020 President, who stated recently, “Buildings—both functionally and aesthetically—must be designed to serve their populations. It’s critical that communities have the ability to decide for themselves what architectural design best fits their needs.”

    Unfortunately, the evidence shows clearly that in recent decades, our planning and design professions have too often failed in this responsibility. Like any profession, architecture and planning are subject to well-documented biases, against which we must compensate. One of these is a well-documented cognitive bias concerning the qualities of architectural design believed most important by professionals, which too often turn out to be at odds with what users actually need and want.

    (Technically, this bias is described in social psychology as “construal level theory,” wherein a professional who is psychologically distant from the actual daily experiences of users must make “construals” of what they believe are the important qualities of a design; in practice, these can be abstract artistic characteristics (i) that are of little value for the daily experiences and needs of users. ).

    The literature documents this failure extremely well, for example:

    “Evidence reveals that architects’ aesthetic evaluations of buildings differ from those of laypersons. If architects are to create buildings that are pleasurable in the eyes of others, they must know how laypersons recognize and evaluate buildings…”(ii)

    “Previous research has revealed important differences in architectural evaluation between design professionals and the lay public… the findings of a study … specifically focusing on differences in architectural interpretation between the lay public, planning students, and practicing planning professionals…”(iii)

    “There is abundant evidence that architects’ aesthetic evaluations of buildings differ from those of laypersons… Nasar (1988) found that architects did not merely disagree with laypersons about the aesthetic qualities of buildings, they were unable to predict how laypersons would assess buildings, even when they were explicitly asked to do so. It would seem that many architects do not know, from a lay viewpoint, what a delightful building looks like. If we are ever to have more
    delightful buildings in the eyes of the vast majority of the population who are not architects, this
    (iv) conundrum needs study and solutions.”.

    In light of this and related research, better methods are clearly needed to assess citizens’ actual preferences over time in evaluating architectural designs. The imposed values (or “construals”) of professionals, artists or government panelists are clearly inadequate, and moreover, may run contrary to the professional responsibility to serve public needs and interests. Instead, better tools are needed to involve the public in more meaningful ways, with better outcomes over time. (There are many such tools, including visual preference surveys, stakeholder workshops, eye-tracking software, and other measurement methods.)

    Another approach is simply to use the evidence of history about designs that are most likely to be satisfactory in the eyes of the general public. The evidence clearly shows that some building types and characteristics are preferred and even beloved by most people in many different contexts, and we later come to call these “Classical” or “traditional”. Often the most desirable designs are those that have been identified and refined through a kind of evolutionary process, not unlike the processes that generate the most beautiful forms of biology. This is a different way of looking at Classical and traditional architecture as a kind of “evolutionary repository,” but it enjoys a growing (and fascinating) scientific evidence base (v).

    By contrast, the award-winning avant-garde buildings by contemporary architects, however much merit they may have as daring and original artistic works, typically carry no such evidence base of public preference or benefit. Indeed, as some critics point out, they may amount to unethical professional experiments carried out upon an unconsenting public. In controlled private settings, such sculptural expressions may be perfectly appropriate, but as key elements shaping the public realm and the daily experiences of all users, they simply violate our professional duty to serve. Judging from the painful history of the last half-century, we are experiencing an unconscionable form of professional malpractice.

    Therefore, when it comes to HR 7604, the “Democracy in Design Act,” I hope you will bear these observations and findings in mind. While we can and should debate the merits of any executive order mandating a style, it may be no less appropriate than legislation that would indirectly enforce another, equally arrogant kind of mandate. We need a better, more thoughtful, evidence-based path forward to best serve the interests of all citizens.

    Sincerely,

    Michael W Mehaffy, Ph.D.

    Citations:

    (i) Trope, Y., Liberman, N. & Wakslak, C. (2007). “Construal levels and psychological distance: Effects on representation, prediction, evaluation, and behavior.” Journal of Consumer Psychology: 17(2), 83.

    (ii) Ghomeshi, M., Nikpour, M. & Jusan, M. M. (2012). “Evaluation of Conceptual Properties by Layperson in Residential Façade Designs”. Arts and Design Studies, 3, 13-17. See also

    (iii) Hubbard, P. (1997). “Diverging attitudes of planners and the public: an examination of architectural interpretation”. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp.317-328.

    (iv) Gifford, R., Hine, D. W., Muller-Clemm, W. & Shaw, K. T. (2002) “Why architects and laypersons judge buildings differently: Cognitive properties and physical bases”, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 19, No. 2, 131-148.

    (v) Mehaffy, Michael & Salingaros, Nikos (2020) “Building Tomorrow’s Heritage. IV. Making Places For All, By All”, Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 20 May, https://forum.savingplaces.org/blogs/special-contributor/2020/05/20/building-tomorrows-heritage-making-places-for-all

    CITATIONS:

    Ghomeshi, M., Nikpour, M., & Jusan, M. M. (2012). Evaluation of Conceptual Properties by Layperson in Residential Façade Designs. Arts and Design Studies, 3, 13-17.

    Gifford, R., Hine, D. W., Muller-Clemm, W. & Shaw, K. T. (2002) “Why architects and laypersons judge buildings differently: Cognitive properties and physical bases”, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 19, No. 2, 131-148.

    Hubbard, P. (1997). Diverging attitudes of planners and the public: an examination of architectural interpretation. Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp.317-328.

    Trope, Y., Liberman, N., & Wakslak, C. (2007). “Construal levels and psychological distance: Effects on representation, prediction, evaluation, and behavior.” Journal of Consumer Psychology: 17(2), 83.

    Like

  27. LazyReader says:

    People assert “Classicism” is White Supremacy
    Phillip Johnson, Corbusier, and Loos were three important pillars of the modern architecture movement. Two Nazis/ collaborators and a convicted pedophile. Quite a foundation you have there modernists.

    Still….It doesn’t go unnoticed here that Mussolini, Franco, and a particular failed German art student whose name rhymes with Kitler; all pushed for a singular, classically inspired state architecture intended to project tradition, order, and the superiority of the state. I for one care less about a mandate, Government has enough real estate.

    Also, why should Neoclassical federalism be the mainstay. When there’s an entire plethora of revivalism schemes.

    Art deco is modernism and classical mixed. Which is why it’s one of my favorites.

    Like

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