Classical Style Aligns Fed Buildings to Civic Ideals

The U.S. Courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a rare example of a classical architecture built since 1962 (Photo: Timothy Hursley)
Leave experiments and trends to the private sector.

Lots of people seem to have their gender-neutral knickers in a twist. Last week, a draft of a new federal-government rule mandating the classical style for most federal government buildings was leaked to newspapers. Fury ensued, not by the act of leaking but by the new, salubrious leash proposed for tax-funded architects given to chasing fads. Personally, my knickers flow untrammeled by snags and hitches. I studied the eminently readable order, learned the facts, thought about them, followed the money, of course, and then developed an informed opinion.

The draft order offers much to like and some things to tweak. Its proponents should stick to their guns. Don’t be intimidated. Cleave to the line. What they’re suggesting makes sense. I hope a final presidential order reflects its bite and scope.

The new plan changes the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” conceived in 1962. It directs the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal real-estate fiefdom, to use traditional architectural styles, with special consideration for classical architecture, in all new federal buildings with construction budgets exceeding $50 million. In Washington, D.C., itself, classicism is the default style.

It defines classicism as the style descending from principles and forms first used by the Greeks and Romans, modified and enhanced by Michelangelo, Palladio, Wren, Robert Adam, and, in America, by Charles McKim, Richard Morris Hunt, and John Russell Pope. It prohibits new federal buildings in what it calls the brutalist style — think monolithic, stark, and concrete — and the deconstructionist style, which, the order says, “subverts traditional style via fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry, and the appearance of instability.” Well said.

Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

I read the original “Guiding Principles.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future senator but then an assistant secretary of labor, wrote them. Moynihan was an academic and historian, not an architect, and he’d never commissioned a building. He’d worked in Washington for only a year. Always precocious and opinionated, he seems to have seized pen and paper on his own.

These guidelines are advisory. Nobody ever approved them. They’re not statutes. They’re not even federal regulations. Nobody paid much attention to them until the 1980s, when elite architects began pushing them. “See,” they said, “they’re written by a guy in the U.S. Senate. They must be okay.” Of course, they were looking for business.

So the guidelines mustn’t be treated like the stone tablet Moses picked up on Mount Sinai. They’re 60 years old, which is a good reason in itself to look at them.

They disavow “the development of an official style.” They caution that “design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa.” Federal architecture “must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.”

If I were to pick an architectural template reflecting the character of American government these days, I’d pick an outhouse. Only kidding, though Monticello has a pretty plush outdoor loo.

Having grown up near New Haven, Conn., Ground Zero for the catastrophe called Urban Renewal, I look at any circa-1960s government guidance on architecture with a gimlet eye and churning tummy. In those days, cutting-edge public architecture, the kind that “flowed from the profession,” was almost always bad. It was a bleak period for institutional style. And shouldn’t style flow from the client, not the architect? Who’s paying the bill?

Moynihan’s guiding principles advise that designs “embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” This statement might not have compelled a single official style, but it certainly dethroned classicism, which wasn’t new, hot, and shiny. It was old and steady, and 1962 was peak New Frontier. Since then, almost no big new federal building in the classical style has been built. Temples and columns were out, the Jetsons were in. There indeed developed a default “official style.” It’s what I call mishmash modernism and its assorted hangovers. Most of it is corporate, consumerist, neurotic “Mad Men” architecture, with lots of sleek, empty vessels.

I did some research — I love learning new things — on federal architecture in my lifetime, which doesn’t go quite as far back to the Washington Monument but covers a lot of chronology. I don’t want to name names, but . . . hey, why not name names?

United States Federal Building in San Francisco, Calif. (HaeB via Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Thom Mayne’s 2007 federal office building in San Francisco isn’t unattractive. It’s emotional, indeed overwrought. It’s a libertine building, like Nureyev flying through the air. It doesn’t put the viewer or visitor in a frame of mind to think of the Constitution. I adore Phifer and Partner’s cool, minimalist Glenstone Museum, but the U.S. Courthouse in Salt Lake City looks like a spaceship. Many of the courthouses the GSA has built are big glass cubes, rigid and unornamented. There’s no point dissecting brutalist-style buildings like the FBI headquarters or the Department of Housing and Urban Development building, both in Washington. Both were worse than hit by the ugly stick. Both were bludgeoned by it, and not even vultures will touch the carcass.

J. Edgar Hoover F.B.I. Building in Washington, D.C. (Mary F. Calvert/Reuters)

Urban Renewal nearly destroyed American cities in the 1960s, and the architecture of the time — public and private, federal and local — played a villain’s part. Most of the Model Cities buildings constructed in New Haven in the 1960s have been razed. They expressed their day’s “finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Sometimes avant-garde style just isn’t good.

Everyone hated these buildings, except the architects, developers, and contractors who made money from them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I know, but they were more than aesthetic horrors. Nobody liked working in them or using them, then and now. The Mayne building was rock-bottom in a survey of government employees on habitability. Now, I like a lot of Mayne’s work, but at its best, it’s bold, make-a-statement fashion-runway architecture. What his work and all of these buildings I’ve cited don’t evoke is American history or civic values. Federal buildings need to reference and reinforce America’s heritage and the government’s role in advancing liberty, order, and justice. That’s the business of government. That’s what happens in these buildings.

Classicism isn’t just slapping columns on a façade, though the style must draw from the old Five Orders, not only for column capital styles but for the entire superstructure. Classicism possesses a harmony of parts arranged in consistent arithmetical proportions. That discipline guides the entire building. Its logic is both rarefied and egalitarian. There are endless variations on classicism. It allows vaults, arches, rustication, pilasters, and an intensity of feeling obtained through forms that can be severe or grandiloquent, with a palette of buff white or the rainbow. The opera house in Paris is sumptuous. Robert Adam’s colored plaster moldings are the zenith of elegance and refinement. John Soane’s Bank of England was austere.

United States Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Classicism creates a mood, and here’s the rub. Classicism can suggest passion. Il Gesu in Rome is an example. This passion is leavened by self-control, integrity, harmony, and reason. Its look is firm, serious, and stable, not flighty or whimsical. Generic glass boxes, and that’s what lots of new federal buildings are, might mean to project transparency, but their glass isn’t really transparent. It’s shiny, reflective, and opaque. It’s transparency that deceives. Aside from practicalities — most of these buildings, such as the Sandra Day O’Connor Courthouse in Phoenix, are excruciating heat traps — they feel blank and anonymous. Transparency is fine, but when it communicates boredom, uniformity, and the aloofness of a Puritan, it’s hard to love.

Lots of modernist style isn’t even American. Mies van der Rohe, Corbusier, and Walter Gropius were European, and their style is modernist as modernism was conceived in Europe. They did lots of work here, and Mies and Gropius moved here, but their work isn’t in the American vernacular. The Capitol, the University of Virginia, Grand Central Station, the old Penn Station, and the 1940 National Gallery are. This style isn’t suitable for everything, but it has to be represented in a swath of our federal government buildings.

The new draft order makes room for mission revival, adobe style, and prairie style, defining these as the traditional, vernacular styles of parts of the country. There’s a waiver component, but the local client (say, the building committee for a federal courthouse) has to make a convincing case that classical or traditional regional styles aren’t right. The beautiful National Museum of African American History is obviously in perfect sync with the place’s mission. It embraces traditional African-American aesthetics. In my opinion, it wouldn’t need a waiver at all.

The draft order — and this is what critics don’t like but won’t say — takes the punch bowl from lots of white-shoe architecture firms that don’t work in a classical style. The GSA is always building, so the bucks are big. I suspect things are a wee bit of swamp there. I suspect there are lots of aesthetic cliques forged and nourished by the private sector. I can’t imagine that risk-averse bureaucrats would have agreed to some of these out-there buildings without a push. Billions of dollars are at stake. High-end architects want to keep design imperatives as loosey-goosey as they can. It’s time everyone got some direction.

Government patronage will, in effect, promote a revival of classical style, create a new breed of designers, and jigger architecture-school curricula. That’s fine. For buildings costing less than $50 million, GSA is free to experiment. Some good, new looks will come from this. For some of these buildings, twists on brutalist or constructivist style might be perfect.

I’m sorry to see the National Civic Art Society smeared in so much of the criticism of the draft rule. It’s not a “fringe group,” as The Atlantic called it. It promotes rebuilding the old Penn Station, whose demolition in 1963 is now considered an atrocity by almost everyone. It opposes the hideous new Eisenhower Memorial, a blot on the landscape and a future junkyard. It’s a mainstream think tank and sponsors lectures and walking tours. Fears that a new classical aesthetic for federal buildings might kindle interest in Mussolini or Albert Speer dwell only in unintelligent minds.

I’d ditch the Gothic from the roster of preferred looks. It’s too French, too feudal, and it reeks of kingship. Gothic revival came to America via the English, so it’s derivative and Romantic-era fussy. The order establishes a term-limited commission to develop new rules for GSA to follow when determining a desired design path and selecting architects. I would suggest the commission develop an independent, outsider-dominated design-review board to approve aesthetics for big projects. Not the aesthetics of restrooms or offices but the look of the façade and public spaces, the standard of quality for finishes, and how well the building plays with its neighbors. I’d ditch the requirement that renovations of modernist government buildings have to classicize as much of them when feasible. That’ll make a big, expensive mess.

I’m glad to see what appears to be a pulse in the administration’s arts policy. Art and culture aren’t exclusively the Left’s. The Right has a deep interest in preserving and, whenever it can, enhancing traditional culture. It ignores it at its peril.


Most Popular