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A plea for beautiful buildings

Proposed executive order challenges soul-crushing architectural fads

Most of us don’t think about architecture unless it slaps us in the face. That may say more about bland, blocky public buildings than we’d like to admit, but several years ago I was slapped by the central public library in a Midwestern university town. The entrance, opening to a four-story atrium, resembled an upended, corrugated, glass-and-aluminum Dixie cup. The main body of the building, constructed of native red granite, sloped slightly inward, decorated with random strips of window. Inside, an abundance of industrial metal in the warehouse modern style, accented with geometric shapes in primary colors. At least it wasn’t bland.

But what did it say? Not, “Here’s a repository of the world’s learning, dedicated to the principle that all men and women may freely partake, according to their inclinations.” The message I got was, “Aren’t we clever?”

What brought this to mind is a modest proposal put forward by the National Civic Art Society, in the form of a proposed executive order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The draft states that “Federal architecture should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance”—and, to that end, buildings in the “classical architectural style” are to be preferred for federal buildings in D.C. and elsewhere.

The Civic Art Society singles out two modernist styles for particular condemnation. First, Deconstructivism, which “subverts the traditional values of architecture via fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry and the appearance of instability.” (One jaw-dropping example of this is the San Francisco Federal Building.) The other style is Brutalism, “characterized by a massive, monolithic, stark, and block-like appearance with a rigid geometric style and large-scale use of exposed poured concrete.” The name actually derives from béton brut, meaning “raw concrete,” but it well describes the thuggish character of, for example, the Hoover FBI headquarters in D.C.

The proposed executive order did not originate with the executive, and Trump has not indicated he’ll sign it, but the predictable outcry is mostly aimed at him. Every art-and-architecture society is up in arms, citing reasons from (1) mandating classical architecture costs too much, to (2) it diminishes our diversity and chills innovation, to (3) it reeks of white supremacy and classism. A New York Times piece roars, “MAGA War on Architectural Diversity Weaponizes Greek Columns.” Linking to that, one Twitter user warned of fascism and genocide: “The cult of antiquity & the imposition of monuments to a nation’s mythical glorious past precede both of those disasters.” Got that? Pediments today; swastikas tomorrow.

To me, “weaponizing” looks more like 41 Cooper Square than the Jefferson Memorial. The outrage, mind you, stems from a modest proposal that federal buildings have a unity in design that suggests order and stability, rather than “officially sanctioned stylistic chaos” (in the words of Catesby Leigh, a founding member of the Civic Art Society). State and city governments—including libraries—can go all in for any sheet-metal fad they want to waste taxpayer money on. But the United States government shouldn’t be subjecting its citizens to oversize shards of glass.

Against the fearsome prospect of a coronavirus pandemic and a nail-biting presidential campaign, an architectural dispute doesn’t even register a blip on the radar of public concern. But it’s a dispute that’s been going on for decades, and the continuing presence of ugly, brutal, show-offy, impractical, inhuman blocks of concrete and bent steel indicate who’s winning. Traditionalists like Leigh and Theodore Dalrymple hope that a positive word from the executive office will at least validate classical notions of beauty and function. But any word from this particular executive will only intensify the anti-authoritarian umbrage, so that’s not likely to happen.

Trump is not the authoritarian, though; it’s the modernist elites whose egotism insists on subjecting the public to soul-crushing structures. Architecture is a language—God-given, like all languages—that can inspire us or welcome us or shout us down. What will it take for the public to start shouting back?