Before I applaud modernist critic Aaron Betsky’s kind words for classical architecture in the wake of the Harris Poll confirming its popularity, let me note, also with approval, the even more recent article by critic Kriston Capps, entitled “Why Trump’s ‘Beautiful’ Federal Building Order May Be Here to Stay.”
Capps reiterates his concern that a shift away from modernism and toward classical and traditional architecture may be under way at the General Services Administration, which oversees the design and construction of federal buildings. The GSA awaits appointment of a new chief architect, but already proposals for courthouses are emerging with language influenced by the executive order on federal architecture. President Trump has just appointed four more classicists to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts: architect Rodney Mims Cook, sculptor Chas Fagan, landscape architect Perry Guillot and architect Steven W. Spandle. Capps refers snidely to these classicists as “deeply steeped in yesteryear’s European art forms.” Each will serve a four-year term. All seven commission members are now classicists, including Justin Shubow, who as president of the National Civic Art Society was involved in the E.O. Capps also reports the appointment of classicist Gibson Worsham to the National Capital Planning Commission. Capps adds that the recently opened memorial to Dwight Eisenhower designed by Frank Gehry “could not have survived review with this bunch.”
That’s high if unintended praise for “this bunch.” They will help steer toward a new federal design policy to replace the current policy, which has favored modern architecture for half a century, since the mandate for modernist federal buildings was put into effect in 1962. For the first time since then, federal policy would take its cue from the tastes of the American public.
Hold the presses! What a novel idea!
Even Aaron Betsky, the chief polemicist for the modernist American Institute of Architects (which should be neutral on style), has conceded that this might be a reasonable notion in a democracy. His “Back to the Classics,” in AIA’s Architect magazine, reports on a Harris Poll commissioned by Shubow’s NCAS. It found that up to three-quarters of the public, across a broad range of demographic categories, prefers classical or traditional architecture over modernist alternatives for federal courthouses and other buildings. He writes:
There is nothing magical about the preference for Classicism, which has been giving shape to buildings for millennia. That default collection of columns, pediments, architraves, moldings, and compositional principles add a touch of class to any building, be it a bank or a courthouse, a suburban McMansion or a utility plant. Include those elements or compose your plan according to its system, and you have made any structure convey a message of importance and elegance, much in the way that we might opt for a suit and tie or an evening dress. No other style has been able to achieve the same level of success at communicating that sense of class.
Of course, there is an edge to this admission by Betsky. With his characteristic subtlety, he dismisses the preference of Americans for classicism as a matter of “class,” which can be read in several ways, but which is likely to be read by his readers as “classism.” That’s not classicism, which is a stylistic language, but classism, which is how some groups oppress other groups in society.
Phrases such as “a touch of class” and “that sense of class” probably do reflect something of what most Americans have in mind when they think of how federal buildings should be designed – so as to “convey a message of importance and elegance.” Betsky lets his classist cat out of the bag further down in his essay:
Classicism may be easy to use as a designer and a builder, but it is also the style of the upper classes. The fact that the majority of respondents in the poll across all demographic groups preferred the Classical buildings says more about our dominant cultural values than it does about the universality of the style. If you can afford Classicism, or you can enter into its domain, you have arrived. The various modes of Modernism have never been able to achieve a similar reality.
Then he adds:
But that also means that Classicism serves those in power and, more than just about any style we know, has racist associations, because of its long history with slaveholders and institutions of Black oppression. Our national and state capitols are supposed to represent democratic values, although their very Classicism can convey a message of white, male power. Like any language, however, Classicism has been used in many ways that were indifferent to any moral, ethical, or political message.
That last sentence undermines the narrative that Betsky has attempted to erect, because what happens inside buildings should be blamed not on the buildings themselves or on their styles but on the people in those buildings. This is true of courthouses, state capitol buildings, and every other sort of building, including plantation houses, prisons or Albert Speer’s New Reich Chancellery (1939). In most cases, they are used by people for purposes that change over time and are completely unrelated to what Betsky calls the “collection of columns, pediments, architraves, moldings, and compositional principles” that make up their design.
There is no element or combination of elements on that list or any longer list of classical elements or principles that can be made to say “Invade France” or “Kill the Jews!” or “Oppress blacks!” or “Succor the rich!” The classical language is articulate, but not so articulate as to express the agendas of passing ideologies or the purposes of the inhabitants of any given building, either over time or at any given time. The style of the U.S. Capitol doesn’t even say “America’s legislative branch lives here,” though it supports that interpretation with classical elements that are designed to cause a feeling of, say, dignity in the public eye. Classical language cannot be so particular as to distinguish this or that legislative act or agenda, apart from what baggage legislators, commentators, or others in the public arena might, with no assistance from the design of the building, wish to apply to it. A building in the classical manner gives voice to sentiments far more basic and far more profound than the passing whims of its occupants.
This truth is understood intuitively, at least, by probably 100 percent of the American public, and it is denied by those who believe that their agendas are more important than that truth. Capps believes, for example, that the racial and sexual makeup of a body such as the Commission of Fine Arts is more important than its role in overseeing the maintenance of federal standards of design. Betsky seems to believe, without much evidence, that a particular standard of design in federal buildings will be more likely to produce federal policies that he supports.
Since these arguments are so flimsy, Betsky resorts to a sort of aesthetic classism:
If you can afford Classicism, or you can enter into its domain, you have arrived. The various modes of Modernism have never been able to achieve a similar reality.
The fact is that anybody can enter into the domain of a classical building or a modernist building. The ornamental language of a classical building – in which, for example, the entry may be more easily perceived than a modernist entry – welcomes us more readily than the sterility of a modernist building, which prohibits most of the design cues that signify “entrance,” let alone those which gently engage the attention of visitors. It is not necessarily more difficult for the taxpayer to afford to build a classical building – although modernist industrial shenanigans have created a narrative that causes many to believe that is so.
But maybe I am quibbling. The fact is that Aaron Betsky has acknowledged that it makes sense for the public to prefer classical to modern architecture, and Kriston Capps has reported that agencies of the American government are gearing up to give the public a greater voice in the design of government buildings. That’s good news, and for me it’s enough for now.