After Biden nix Trump E.O.

Harris poll on American architectural tastes. Humphrey Building (l.); National Archives. (Harris)

Architecture is a huge field of human endeavor. Along with the planning of cities and towns, and the arts and crafts that enter into civic beauty, it forms the stage on which the human comedy is performed. For millennia, our dear species has botched most of what it has touched with its failure to solve or alleviate many of its problems, from poverty to war to disease and beyond. But until a century ago, few would have argued that the stage upon which these failures unfolded was part of the problem.

At least suffering humanity could look around and see beauty, lots of it and for free. Architecture may be said to have uplifted the soul. Now the queen of the arts has joined the long list of human failures, and the stage set has been taken over by architecture based not on nature or humanity but on machines. Much of the old beautiful world has been replaced by a cockamamie sterility that neglects old problems and inspires new ones. At worst, the new architecture seems to beckon humanity toward an authoritarian future, if not planetary extinction.

With its generally tedious qualities, modern architecture has caused people to turn away from their built environment as a sort of defense mechanism. Local efforts to enable participation in development projects, fostered from above or below, have largely failed to arouse much interest from the public, so our local environments continue to go from bad to worse.

Are we doomed to remain on this path? So it might appear. Donald Trump signed an executive order on Dec. 18 to mandate a return to beauty, at least in federal architecture. His successor, Joe Biden, revoked it on Feb. 24.

But beauty is a widely approved commodity, and even its erosion in recent decades has boosted its premium. Scientific research and academic studies have fortified centuries-old anecdotal evidence that most people prefer tradition over novelty in how we build the civic realm and our own private domiciles. Most recently the Harris Poll showed that classical architecture is favored by almost 75 percent of the public in every demographic category surveyed. The human brain is hard-wired to prefer the characteristics of architecture that have evolved over centuries by natural processes that reflect the reproductive patterns of species in human neurobiology. On the other hand, skepticism of architecture that “starts from zero” is widespread.

Biden’s revocation of the Trump mandate to prefer classical and traditional design for federal courthouses and offices in Washington, D.C., and around the nation does not mean a halt to efforts to bring beauty back into the ambit of architecture. Pressure toward that end remains strong. No party has a lock on beauty or how it can be returned to our built environment. Architecture can and should be a bipartisan or even a nonpartisan issue.

After details of Trump’s draft executive order leaked to the press a year ago, many classicists opposed it out of dislike for the president or for its design mandate, not realizing that it merely switched the existing mandate from architecture that is widely disliked to architecture that is strongly preferred by the public – a factor you’d think would be important in a democracy.

Classicists who opposed Trump’s order suggested alternatives, almost all of them quite reasonable, politically and programmatically. For example, an anonymous source at the time wrote me that the official principles that have mandated a modernist approach to federal design since 1962 could be transformed into a mandate for a level playing field for major commissions – which exists almost nowhere today. He identified a mere three changes in the language of the principles that would be required to do so.

Steven Semes offered a suggestion for a body modeled on the Building Better, Building Beauty commission in Britain that has just issued a set of mandates that, above all, engage local publics officially in the processes that vet and approve local development projects according to local ideas of beauty. The various suggestions for some new body of individuals experienced in the field of architecture to hash out a way forward probably appealed to most attendees at the recent Traditional Architecture Gathering. For example, TAG 4 featured a presentation by Rhode Island traditionalist David Andreozzi, who argued that combining cultural and contextual sustainability would produce an architecture of design resilience regardless of style. New Jersey architect Mark Alan Hewitt, who was also at TAG 4, has, in his upcoming column on the Common/Edge website, a long list of suggestions for the Biden team on the way forward in architecture.

All of these proposals might figure into a rumored effort to engage the Biden administration through a committee that would, above all, bring science to bear on reforming federal architecture. Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician at the University of Texas, has developed many of the neurobiological theories that support the affinity between humanity and traditional architecture. He would be involved in this committee with Mark Hewitt and others. Both were at TAG 4, which was run by Nir Buras of the Classic Planning Institute and author of The Art of Classic Planning. Buras was the anonymous source who suggested the changes, noted above, for the existing mandate on federal architecture. He has produced an extraordinary plan to turn the banks of the Anacostia River, sister of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., into a classical paradise that would serve some of the largely neglected black neighborhoods of the capital.

President Biden himself is a longstanding lover of trains and pitchman for public transportation, including Amtrak. Perhaps, as he seeks to unify the nation, he might be interested in another idea from TAG 4, to rebuild New York City’s crumbling, inhumane failure of a Penn Station in its original 1910 classical style, before it was demolished in 1963. That was the year after the 1962 mandate for modernist federal buildings. Such a project would teach millions of people a day that beauty is not lost to the past but is possible today. Now is the time to harness science to bring beauty and architecture together in the 21st century.

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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13 Responses to After Biden nix Trump E.O.

  1. LazyReader says:

    dare: name a piece of modern architecture you “Like”

    Like

  2. Steven W Semes says:

    David, thank you for this very reasonable response to a troubling issue, and thanks as well for the reference to my modest proposals. Just to be precise, my personal objection to the EO was not based on hatred for the President or his administration (though I did consistently actively oppose it) but because I predicted that what happened would, in fact, happen: that the Order would inflame a debate that would best be advanced away from the overheated political arena, and that the Order itself would likely be short-lived and, therefore, useless if not damaging to the classical cause. I think my prediction was borne out by events. I agree that the more thoughtful responses you list in your piece should now proceed to the extent we can gain some traction for them. But that will require persuasion and consensus building, just what the NCAS initiative did not bother to do. I hope a more thoughtful approach will lead to a more positive outcome. It will take some time. Please keep writing on this and bring all useful efforts to the public’s attention.

    Like

    • Steven, I appreciate your position and I congratulate you for having successfully predicted that A instead of B would happen. But if Trump had won (and many believe he did), it is possible that a change in the direction of the existing mandate for federal design would have been a more effective way to even the playing field than the committee effort that seems to be in the offing today. We just don’t know. I hope it works, but I do not think the modernists will give up without a fight, just as they were not going to give up in the face of the Trump mandate. They still have almost all the power. If they simply choose not to negotiate honestly, nothing useful will happen. Much depends on the Biden team. In any event, I have no idea how this rumored committee will be assembled, but I do very much hope that you will be involved somehow in whatever effort or efforts are made.

      Like

  3. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    A slight clarification regarding my use of the word resilience… I mentioned that good architecture is designed with resilience. I don’t mean resilient engineering, though that is equally important… I mean resilient in its “design”, …it’s imagery needs to be relatable to be loved by both current and future generations.

    Like

    • Thank you, David. I certainly agree with that last thought. How about, instead of my climate resilience, “an architecture of design resilience regardless of style”? I had though climate would cover all bases!

      Like

  4. David: a truly wonderful and measured response to this highly charged issue. I support everything you say and hope that the group concerned with this can come up with a revision like Building Beauty in Britain. The suggestion to rebuild Penn Station may go into my column, with a shout out to you. Bravo.

    Like

  5. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    amen …

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  6. LazyReader says:

    Oh, and by the way, office towers have gone obsolete since Coronavirus demonstrated to companies that employees might as well just work from home. Of course, these vanity projects have to get their permits far in advance of construction, so this confection no doubt got its approvals before the virus screwed the pooch on this kind of real estate.

    Like

    • I think after covid, Lazy, which most people are eager to see in the rear-view mirror, whatever may be the case about remnant viruses down the road, people will go back to towers to live and to work. Working from home is probably not as effective for most companies – aside from backshops and call centers – whose productivity and creativity may require more (actual) face-to-face contact with co-workers and workers at related firms located nearby in downtowns than is available from home or on Zoom. I think we will go back with joy to what will be difficult to distinguish from “normal.”

      Like

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