Betsky on classical popularity

One of many courtyards within Washington’s Federal Triangle, built in the 1930s. (American University)

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.

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,, 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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10 Responses to Betsky on classical popularity

  1. Pingback: Betsky on classical reputation - Zbout

  2. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    The article is littered with condescending and nonfactual remarks, red-herrings for those not willing to spend the time to research the subject matter. That seems purposeful, and if it so, I would argue that it is deceitful.

    Two points. First… all of history is filled with the unfortunate repression of persons and peoples in the form of slavery, indentured servants, etc.. It is tragic, it is unacceptable, but it is a reality of our evolution as an improving human race on this planet. It is also still ongoing, simply Google these words together: Iphone, Foxconn, Suicide, Sweatshop. To tie this to the resulting historic art, architecture, and allied crafts of its time has little to do with barbaric leadership at the top… it is a convenient and easy lie, a self-serving trap. We are an improving world, century by century, with a sacred and important connectivity with history, bad or good.

    Second, when considering the cost of a public building, its life cycle matters. Part of ensuring an enduring life cycle in design is twofold: building with long-lasting materials with proven technology/details for the vernacular, and, designing with a connectivity to the people and history that came before it so it will always be understood and loved into the future.

    Tradition matters, irrespective of archetype.



    • Well stated, Dave. I need to do a piece that takes apart the supposedly costlier construction of classical over modernist buildings. You can do classical on the cheap and modernist on the cheap, or luxury of both types. But using natural materials will get you a longer lifespan for your building, and that’s a feature more often of classical, traditional buildings than modernist ones. And of course the modernists use a lot of rhetorical falsehoods to cover up this and other realities that cause most people to prefer classcal/traditional work to modernist work. And of course modernist is anti-traditional, even if there are “traditions” within its span, such as flat rather than pitched roofs and many others.


  3. I have a French revolutionary coin that has three classical figures representing liberty, equality, and fraternity. Liberty carries a Phrygian cap, symbolic of freeing a slave in ancient times. Equality carries an old-fashioned carpenter’s level. Fraternity is represented by Hercules, to convey the idea that fraternity makes the nation strong.

    You can see it here.
    and here is a reissue of the coin in 1977 that shows the figures more clearly

    It simply is not true historically that classicism serves those in power. It is easy to find many other examples of revolutionary classicism, such as David’s Death of Socrates.


    • I suppose, Charles, it’s a matter of definition. People and organizations pay to design and erect buildings, so those with money obviously have more power than those without. In short, the distinction is meaningless, since the outs often replace the ins and the ins are often in league with the outs, who then behead the ins when replacing them.


      • charlesnsiegel says:

        I didn’t mention buildings. My examples were a painting and a coin, both in the classical style.

        The coin was made by the revolutionaries at the time of the French revolution, and I don’t think anyone can say that they were really “in league” with the people they just beheaded..

        I don’t see the point of saying it is a matter of definition. Are you saying that there is no real distinction between progressive and conservative? Does that mean that the people who Trump calls socialists are really no different from conservatives?


  4. westfall2 says:

    Admirable commentaries.
    Betsky et al on that other side miss three points about the classical that Modernism cannot do effectively.
    One is that the classical does exactly what its name implies–it classifies. It has the capacity in its configurations, compositions, and ornamentations to follow a tradition that allows people to recognize what role a classical building plays in their lives: This is a capitol, this is a school, this is a house, and this is a factory. Each is the same and different but different in the same way, just like the three or five orders, the same but different and different in the same way.
    The other is that this allows them to represent the authority appropriate to their class. This does not pass judgment on the end that that authority seeks, good or evil or indifferent.
    And third: the end of architecture is the beautiful, the end of authority is the good, and a person commits a fallacy when using the judgments about the one for the other.
    One can hope as we move into a new year that the restoration of these three aspects of the classical in where we live and do our work, especially at the highest level of authority, can restore the sense of comity and community that allows individuals to recognize that their pursuit of happiness depends on their contribution to that pursuit by others.


  5. Seth Weine says:

    There is something deeply wrong with two notions implicit in Betsky’s text.
    He writes:
    QUOTE A: “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. . . .”
    COMMENT ON QUOTE A: It’s not a that classicism “adds a touch of class” to a building, any more than using Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion cruciform-columns would add a touch of being Modernly “with it” to a building. This is not a matter of certain elements or shapes being used as applique, or layered-on like icing on a cake. Nor is it a “message” which classical elements are conveying like Venturi’s “I am a monument” signage. The truth is that that the meaning is, per se, IN the choice to use of classicism. A whole world-view is conveyed by that choice.
    What is that world-view? A fair question!
    It’s hard to articulate, but I’ll offer this:
    Much is made of respecting indigenous cultures. Often, part of those cultures’ is deeply respecting the community’s elders—particularly the wisdom, heritage, and direction which those elders convey to the current and coming generations.
    Classicism is our connection with our culture’s elders–our connection with the wisdom of the past, it is our appreciation of the gifts of previous generations, and it is our promise to be a steward of that wisdom.
    QUOTE B: “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.”
    COMMENT ON QUOTE B: But is this factually true? As far as I can tell, for at least the last 70 years, most housing for the non-rich (from middle-class apartment houses –to– “housing projects” for the poor) have been designed in various modes of Modern. Yes, it’s generally bargain-basement Modern to be sure—but Modern nevertheless.

    Respectfully yours,
    Seth Joseph Weine


    • Fine thoughts, Seth, on the meaning of classicism. I am particularly impressed by the idea that the choice to use classicism rather than modernism in designing a building gives it its most significant meaning. After all, classicism sums up the wisdom of ages, whereas modernism is an experiment in rolling the dice, with the odds influenced by modernists’ decision to ignore the wisdom of the ages – whether in the practice of designing and building, or in what the past has to teach about the meaning of life and existence.


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