President Biden’s call for unity would be well served by quickly putting into effect the Executive Order issued on December 18, 2020, that seeks to restore the beauty of classical and traditional architecture for new federal buildings.
The EO would establish a commission to recommend guidelines to replace the ones in effect since 1962. They would be drafted by a commission composed of up to 20 “citizens from outside the Federal Government to provide diverse perspectives” along with 11 people in various government positions and whomever more the president wishes to appoint.
The 1962 guidelines stated, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.” As the EO notes that the buildings they have produced have been unpopular with Americans. They “ranged from the undistinguished to designs even GSA now admits many in the public found unappealing. In Washington, D.C., new Federal buildings visibly clashed with the existing classical architecture. Some … were controversial, attracting widespread criticism for their Brutalist designs.” An example from the early years is the FBI Building; a newer building is the Federal Building in San Francisco that the EO accurately notes exemplifies “‘art-for-art’s-sake’ architecture, intended primarily for architects to appreciate.”
Quite predictably, the architecture establishment launched an immediate and full-throated condemnation of the EO, for several understandable reasons, some of them unstated.
First, only a few architects are trained or able to design classical and traditional buildings, although an increasing number of architects have proven otherwise.
Second, for nearly a century the architecture establishment has argued that designing new classical and traditional and buildings impedes the progress that modernist designs exemplify.
Third, the EO wants buildings that are beautiful, but that is not what architects aim to produce. They seek originality, creativity, and styles on the cutting edge of avant-garde fashion.
Fourth, the EO wants buildings that “command respect from the general public,” but architects, and, unfortunately, their corporate, institutional, and government clients, want a building that is, as a university administrator put it, “on time, on budget, and gets good press reviews,” reviews written to laud avant-garde achievements.
Fifth, when a buildings does “command respect from the general public” it is for reasons that architects ignore, which are its service to and expression of the authority that government exercises in our democracy. We the people entrust this authority to trusted institutions that have traditionally served the common, public good, a trust earned over time and expressed by classical, traditional buildings.
But architects are not taught to think about buildings in these terms. In the theories and histories, they encounter they learn that a building is the product of a particular time and a unique creation of its architect or builder. Its most important attribute is its style, which lodges it in a particular place in a chronological sequence that identifies it as a product of its time with the classical a style in the parade of styles from Egypt to the present that crops up from time to time. The classical style is the most pernicious style because it recurs so often, which calls to mind tradition, which is the static enemy of progress, and so it must be denied a role in the present.
But the classical is not a style, and tradition is not static. The classical and tradition have complementary roles in our lives and our buildings. The classical evaluates, as when we say a car is a classic, which my 2009 Jetta is not, and when we rank similar things, such as students in grades 1-12 and buildings from warehouses to capitols. And we use tradition to refer to things in the past that we value and find useful in the present, not as things to be left unaltered but as things to be updated. It is the binding agent of a family, a neighborhood, a people, a nation, providing ballast in architecture, in governing, and in mores. Without it, we drift, but with invention, we put it to work to assist us in moving forward.
Across its 2500 year tradition from its first maturity in ancient Athens and Rome classical architecture has been modified to produce many variations, some that the EO identifies: “Gothic, Romanesque, Pueblo Revival, Spanish Colonial, and other Mediterranean styles of architecture historically rooted in various regions of America,” and the “classical city” of Washington from its inception to its fulfillment “by the 1902 McMillan Plan, which created the National Mall and the Monumental Core as we know them.”
Surely the most prominent and best-known example of traditional classical architecture is the U.S. Capitol Building. When viciously attacked on January 6 commentators called it the citadel of democracy, symbolic of our unity, the house of the people, and so on. It is not a perfect classical design, but it is unimaginable that any modernist building would have received such worshipful comments. Those comments acknowledge its linkage with the Constitution, something noted in the EO when it said that that traditional classicism was used “to visually connect our contemporary Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity, reminding citizens not only of their rights but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions.”
The architecture that “flowed” from the 1962 guidelines was invented in the decades surrounding World War I in an atmosphere of revolution. Architects joined political radicals who blamed the war’s tragic bloodletting on governments that were steeped in tradition, with some architects seeking lead into a glorious utopian future built on tradition’s ruins. Most of their revolutions failed, but the architects found acceptance from industrialists and cultural leaders who made their modernist architecture what it is today, the badge of an elite with taste superior to that of common people.
The architecture they advocate has three major flaws that make it unworthy of the nation.
First, it fails to recognize that the beautiful is the goal of architecture. Instead they give full credit to a building’s style, which must be of its time. All previous styles are unusable in the present because the style must be of the present moment.
Second, it conflates the beautiful with the good found in the declaration that the classical is evil because slave holders and Hitler used it. Yes, their actions were evil, but they sought the beautiful to mask them. The classical triad of the good, the beautiful, and the true belong to three different realms of human activity, the good to what we do, the beautiful to what we make, and the true to what we know.
And third, it rejects the basis of an architecture embedded in the classical tradition that, from ancient Athens to the present day, is based on foundations that support the principles that are put into practice through the classical triad, foundations that the Declaration of Independence identifies as “nature or nature’s laws.” The practices at work in their respective fields are different, and they differ in different times and climes, but their shared foundations make the beautiful the counterpart of the good and leaves the one untouched by the other.
This last point deserves three comments. 1. Only rarely is the same person proficient in the art of governing and the art of architecture, although Thomas Jefferson does come to mind. Others? 2. An evil person can build a beautiful building and a good soul a deficient one. But is Versailles unbeautiful because it was built by Louis XIV, an absolute monarch and not a democrat? Is the University of Virginia unbeautiful because slave labor was used in building it? And 3. Because architecture serves and expresses the authority of the institution that builds and uses it, the beauty it seeks is neutral in the partisanship that vies for control of that authority. Classical traditional architecture serves the common good, not one party or another. It is American architecture, not Republican or Democratic architecture.
The Commission that the EO would establish is intended serve the common good not as seen by on Democrats or Republicans or by modernist architects and classical traditionalists but by Americans who are united by a common aspiration to form a more perfect American union devoted to the good with the beautiful as its emblem and counterpart.