Welcome to the style wars, kid: here’s your helmet. Now, let me set you straight on a few facts. First of all, it’s got nothing to do with style. And, secondly, it definitely doesn’t have anything to do with beauty. Do you really think that leatherette oaf, President Donald Trump, cares about beauty? ‘Beautiful’ might be one of his favourite words but this is the guy who, when demolishing the former Bonwit Teller department store in New York in 1980 to clear the way for Trump Tower, took pneumatic drills to the art deco sculptures rather than donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is the guy who, in 1983, got the architect Philip Johnson to design him a tower block shaped like a castle, complete with a drawbridge and a moat. Johnson! There was an architect who understood what this is all about – not beauty, that’s for sure. It’s about power, and revenge.
With the draft executive order ‘Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again’, which was leaked on 4 February, President Trump has decreed that, henceforth, all architecture produced by the US government will be in the classical style and modernism, specifically, will be driven into the outer darkness. Architecture has thus become the newest front in the US’s interminable culture wars, with MAGA stormtroopers lining up to don togas and explain how civilization itself is imperilled by the curtain wall. A lot of people are angry, which is precisely the point of a culture war: to make people angry and to keep them angry. The specifics hardly matter. Trump could have decreed in favour of Tudorbethan or Byzantine and the battle lines would have been drawn more or less the same. The important part is that modernism is the enemy.
As this is the US, MAGAtecture had to be classical – specifically neoclassical, although getting twitchy about subcategories feels a bit redundant given that, since news of the executive order broke, people have been referring to international style and deconstructivist office buildings as ‘brutalist’, just because ‘brutalist’ sounds more ominous. Truth really is the first casualty of war. But, if you go into a style war expecting to fight about architecture, you’re going to get yourself killed.
Let’s get this out of the way: there’s nothing wrong with classicism. There are neoclassical and Greek revival buildings that are a treat for the soul – sweet and airy delights. And that’s just cracking the lid of the classical dressing-up box. You could have playful and wild-eyed mannerism, with banded columns, big meaty quoins and rustication out the wazoo. Or you could have luscious, boozy baroque, which is surely what American federal architecture yearns to be on a deep psychological level, to really get that whiff of imperial decay.
Also, there’s no point arguing that the US doesn’t have its own long tradition of classical architecture. That’s part of the problem. The Founding Fathers – notably Thomas Jefferson, the most architecturally minded of all American presidents – enthusiastically adopted the classical idiom for their fledgling country. The columned, pedimented classical temple on a sylvan hill was the natural expression of the Jeffersonian ideal of a rational, pastoral (slave-owning) republic. In 1772, before independence, Jefferson had built Monticello, a handsome Palladian plantation house in Virginia. Twenty years later, when the first plans were drawn up for the US Capitol Building in the new city of Washington D.C. – laid out in the neoclassical ‘grand manner’ by Pierre L’Enfant – they were recognizably in the Monticello tradition, somewhat enlarged.
Gradually, these plans were expanded until, by the latter part of the 19th century, when Washington D.C. had filled out to become the city we recognize today, the US was a continental empire casting its eye overseas. Still, it clung to classicism: the domes bloated; the wings multiplied and sprouted their own wings. Unable to contain the vast bureaucracies of a great power, traditional classical forms were bizarrely mutated. When Ammi B Young’s original 1837 design for the Boston Custom House – a by-the-numbers classical temple – needed to be enlarged in the early 20th century, architects Peabody and Stearns added a beaux arts skyscraper erupting out of its roof in 1915.
Neoclassicism continued to adapt, evolving forms capable of containing the government functions of the 20th century. In doing so, however, it lost any remaining delicacy, charm or whiff of liberty. At scale, neoclassicism is an inescapably dour and bullying style. However much its pediments and entablatures might invite the eye upwards, the grim cataract of steps you must climb to reach the door forces your head to bow as you approach. The ground floor is above grade, at the level of the stylobate, so you can never see in from the street. It’s a depressing model of the state. And US government classicism hasn’t had the ability to innovate or evolve for more than a century. It is crushed under a dead weight of expectation and precedent far more restrictive than any system of proportions, and can probably never be dug out.
Critics of the Trump order have naturally recalled the Nazis’ rejection of modernism and embrace of elephantine neoclassicism as the official architecture of their nightmare empire, as well they should. Since the war, generations of architects and historians – many of them humane and subtle thinkers, some of them impeccable liberals – have tried to make the case that neoclassicism isn’t invariably fascistic. Hobbling their efforts, however, is the fact that fascists invariably love neoclassicism. Social media accounts devoted to traditional architecture have a vast and worrying overlap with white supremacists. But architecture post-1945 matters just as much, if not more. Like all architectural reactions, MAGAtecture wants to erase as much as it wants to build. It seeks to anathemise the progressive postwar state, which – in the US, at least – embraced modernism for simple practical reasons more than as a result of ideological fervour. Morphosis’s San Francisco Federal Building, a 2007 deconstructivist office tower singled out for criticism in the Trump order, might not be your idea of beautiful, but it’s at home in its form. A neoclassical equivalent at that height would be a gridiron hive of tiny-seeming windows, or you’d have to lay it on its side to be a groundscraping behemoth of endless corridors.
But none of that matters, of course, as long as you’re seen to be putting the clock back and forcing everyone to work in the architectural style most loved by the swivel-eyed right. Like I say: style really doesn’t have much to do with it, let alone beauty. Besides, there are ways of compensating for the inadequacies of neoclassicism. For instance, you can bury them. With the White House and the Capitol Building leading by example, American federal buildings in the neoclassical idiom tend to be icebergs, with the colonnades and porticoes simply serving as entryways for sprawling annexes and deep layers of basement and sub-basement. Maybe, beneath all the swagger, there’s a chthonic impulse at work: dead-end nationalism, unable to dream, yearning for the bunker.
Main image: Jamie L. Whitten Federal Building, Washington, D.C, 26 May 2017. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Lance Cheung