New executive order could make classical architecture “the preferred and default style” for America’s public buildings
Is neoclassicism about to make a big comeback?
It looks likely, as a new executive order under consideration by President Donald Trump attempts to make classicism the “preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings.
According to an exclusive report by Architectural Record, the predictably named “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” executive order would seek to reposition classically inspired architecture as the country’s default public building style. The shift comes in opposition to the longstanding style agnosticism displayed by public buildings in recent decades following the creation of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture directive crafted in 1962 by former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Moynihan’s directive—which states that “The development of an official style must be avoided” and that “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa”—has resulted in a wide ranging set of innovative public building projects that embrace contemporary design strategies and material approaches, including the SOM-designed New United States Court House in Los Angeles, Morphosis‘s San Francisco Federal Building, and the United States Courthouse in Austin, Texas designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.
This is interesting. Has there ever been an official architectural style for the United States? Styles come in and out of fashion, of course, and people like to maintain a uniform style for a given street or neighborhood (although even the National Mall in Washington, D.C. features a variety of styles). But has there every been an official pronunciamento about what styles are acceptable for government buildings? It seems… un-American, although the federal government is always finding some new thing to intrude itself upon, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before it promulgated an official style for official buildings.
The real debate is over the style itself. Why neoclassicism? You know who else favored neoclassicism?
But I don’t think that the Nazi use of neoclassicism is enough to condemn it for all time. The style has a very strong history in the United States, too! And, I should think, it retains a great deal of appeal to ordinary Americans, who rather appreciate it how it confers dignity on public enterprise. Moynihan’s line about how “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government” represents modernism at its most elitist, a subject explored in Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (1981). Heaven forbid that design should be subject to what actual people actually want. Boston City Hall might have won lots of the awards that the architectural profession bestows on itself, but it has been “subject to nearly universal public condemnation, and is often called one of the world’s ugliest buildings” (Wikipedia).
UPDATE: Theodore Dalrymple:
This [executive order], said the architects, establishes an official style and therefore authoritarian or totalitarian in spirit. But the architects are mistaken on several grounds. First, federal buildings are a small minority of all buildings, and the order says nothing about how the other buildings should or must be built. Second, classicism in architecture is capable of almost infinite variation, such that uniformity will not result (no one has any difficulty in distinguishing the Jefferson from the Lincoln Memorial, for example, or from the White House). Third, it ignores the fact that, as a result of Moynihan’s Guiding Principles, there has long existed de facto an official style, namely that which the architects impose on the government at any given time, all of it in the modern idiom with its desperate and egotistical search for originality as a virtue in itself. Fourth, it ignores the historical, and in my view aesthetic, connection between modernism and totalitarianism. Le Corbusier was a fascist, Philip Johnson a Nazi, and Oscar Niemeyer (the architect of Brasilia) a communist. The totalitarian sensibility of much modernist architecture is to me so obvious that I fail to understand how anyone could miss it. For lack of any other means to achieve grandeur, it deliberately employs sheer size and inhuman coldness of materials to achieve prepotency, in the process reducing the individual to insignificance, as mere intruders or bacteria in a Petri dish.