A week ago, the draft of a provocative new executive order was leaked to the media—a putative fatwa on modern design, proposing that all future federal buildings be constructed in “classical and traditional architecture styles.” Appearing under the snappy title “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” the as-yet unsigned proposal is the work of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), an independent advocacy group that holds some sway in Washington, its leadership having been elevated to senior posts on the United States Commission of Fine Arts, a panel of experts who regularly consult on major public works projects.
Outfits like the NCAS and the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art have been making the case for years that modernism and its assorted derivatives are unsuited to government projects, insisting (as per Catesby Leigh, of the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute) that contemporary designs like Thom Mayne’s San Francisco Federal Building, a daring piece of techno-collage from 2007, fail to “embody the architectural wisdom of the ages.” For the most part, theirs have been voices in the wilderness: in accordance with Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1961 “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” the government has eschewed the “development of an official style,” much less one of fluted columns and vegetal capitals. Now, although the future of the proposal remains unclear, the Greco-Romano-Colonial camp can claim a partial victory.
They shouldn’t. While much of the criticism that has been directed at NCAS’s proposal thus far (from the American Institute of Architects, from the profession at large, and from more or less the entire critical establishment) only threatens to elevate the group’s standing—reigniting a tiresome 1980s Style War, pitting pop historicists against high-minded modernists—it has tended to obscure some of the creepier implications of the incipient decree. The classicists may think they’re about to score a coup. In truth, they are setting themselves up to be consumed by a political project at odds even with their own, admittedly backward-looking agenda.
The tipoff: this Administration appears to be giving serious thought to a bold new direction for public works, despite having no public works program to speak of. Repeated attempts to pass major new infrastructure legislation have gone precisely nowhere, and will probably remain there even should the president be reelected. The most recent big-spending infrastructure proposal from the White House, released on Monday, has been already been panned as “big, bold and unlikely” by Politico, and at any rate puts far more emphasis on highways than on buildings. The man who charged into the White House proclaiming “I know how to build” can thus far point to little more than a few miles of border-barrier construction in the southwestern desert, most of it replacing one type of preexisting fence with another. It is difficult to imagine this president suddenly remaking himself as a new Augustus—the emperor who famously declared that he “found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble.”
Even if new buildings really were in the offing, the only likely outcome would be to transform Washington from a city of concrete, into a city of . . . well, a slightly different shape of concrete. While there are firms capable of doing very sophisticated work in the traditional mold (Robert A.M. Stern Architects being perhaps the most prominent example), the colossal prerequisites of the modern-day government office building—its security requirements, energy efficiency, work safety, and maintenance standards—preclude extravagant ornamental flourishes in most instances; even where feasible, most practices who favor such an approach lack the necessary experience, and might be obliged to ride shotgun alongside more seasoned modernist-inclined firms—omni-offices like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, responsible for LA’s new all-glass Federal Building—who would insist on modern means and materials, blunting the historical effect. The end result would be less Age of Empires and more Age of Crystal Pepsi, the breed of innocuous but uninspired PoMo exemplified by Pei Cobb Freed’s Ronald Reagan Building in DC, begun in the early 1990s.
So if the order isn’t bound to usher in a wave of nouveaux Parthenons, what is it about really? Without even being executed—without necessarily being capable of execution—what the order does is, buy the traditionalists a little bit of public exposure, while selling the red-hat crowd something of greater value. Many critics have observed, and rightly, that “traditional Western architecture” rhymes neatly with the racially coded, crypto-fascist cultural aspirations of the Alt Right—but if more recent government buildings had been of the classical stripe, you can bet the Oval Office would be ringing with praise for Miesian glass curtain walls (a couple of which the present occupant has built himself.) Beyond ideology, indeed beyond politics as such, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” supplies the Alt Right with a fantasy of to-hell-with-everyone impunity and Year Zero autonomy, perfectly pitched to a leader and a movement with a notorious inferiority complex.
That the draft has (apparently) progressed to the level of serious consideration is a credit to its authors’ ability to play to several themes near and dear to the chief executive—above all, albeit subtly, to his gnawing envy of his predecessors, and especially to his convulsive hatred of his immediate predecessor. Gallingly, for Trump, the Obama administration did have a public works program, however modest and flawed: the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill, which initiated and expedited a slew of new courthouses, field offices, land ports of entry, and more. One of the main counter-examples in the current draft was funded by the stimulus: Mack Scogin Merrill Elam’s Austin Federal Courthouse, offered as Exhibit A in the case against the General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program, the long-running initiative under which most major stimulus buildings were approved. To this and other recent federal buildings, the text attaches an epithet as blunt as any presidential tweet: “ugly.” The Austin courthouse, along with billions of dollars and years of effort, are dismissed not just as inconsequential, but as blight.
By deeming “ugly” any building that could be construed as Modernist, Brutalist, or “Deconstructivist” (a stylistic term that appears in the text despite having long fallen, mercifully, into disuse), the drafted proposal grants further license to an ongoing campaign by MAGA Republicans to effect a kind of damnatio memoriae: to efface the memory not just of the previous president, but of any previous president whose projects or whose policies might cause the current incumbent’s to suffer by comparison—which, not coincidentally, would mean pretty much every president since the advent of modernist design, first introduced into federal architecture under Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ostensibly historicist, the order gestures at a menacing brand of anti-historicism, one that ought to give its preservation-loving supporters pause: how far a step is it, in the present climate, between an official condemnation of modern government architecture, and officials actually condemning modern government buildings? And if modern buildings today, why not classical ones tomorrow?
True, it seems hard to imagine that the Feds would ever take the wrecking ball to much-needed infrastructure, especially infrastructure completed only a few years ago. But then again, in 2020, who’s to say?