There is a barrage of criticism flooding newspapers about President Trump’s executive order on federal architecture, mostly from architectural critics and people in the architectural profession. Remember, as you read this criticism, that the client in federal architecture is “we the people,” not architectural critics or the architectural profession. This is an important distinction. Architects love the idea that they could somehow be the acting body of the people. After all, they are the experts right? And there it begins. Architects today, unlike at other points in history, are trained to espouse a quality of self-expression and originality in their work. They rejoice in the opportunity to decree in our federal architecture their own expression of what our country is and what it could be. This “freedom of expression” is something the critic will say is greatly at stake right now. But what about the rest of us? Do we have a say? We didn’t elect these people. Is there a collective sense that we like what they’ve designed?
These are important questions. For one of the essential complications in the shift to modern architecture was a shift in the idea of beauty, something once considered to have a universal sense. Once art became abstracted, architecture followed suit, and ideas of beauty were left much more so to the eye of the beholder. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — but my, what an opening! Now anything can be beautiful to some, including things thought ugly by others. So who is to judge? Furthermore, why even bother with focusing on beauty at all when you can focus on more measurable things, like function and economy? Let freedom of expression ring! The gateway to no aesthetic standards is opened.
In the meantime, a masterpiece may be made — something unimaginable without this total freedom and disregard for aesthetic standards. With that comes a price: There will be hundreds of terrible buildings for that one inexplicable masterpiece. A masterpiece that has no legacy to give the next generation, because it is so original that it can’t be replicated. Thus, it becomes an expression of its time, in that it is the expression of the individual architect who designed it.
This shift in ideas of beauty is not only a shift in aesthetic, but also in power, from client to architect.
This is a very different approach from the one classical architecture takes. The classical is a language with a grammar. Once mastered, this language has gloriously inventive ends. Its sense of beauty is based on a proportional system related to the scale of the human body. It has three core principles: that buildings endure, be functional, and be beautiful. It is important to understand how architecture progressed away from this understanding. Robert Venturi recognized the merits of classical architecture in his book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966), which Vincent Scully, in his introduction to the original edition, called “probably the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, of 1923.” Venturi argued that the early modernists created beautiful buildings in their purity, but didn’t provide a language of architecture that was fit to handle the complexities of real life. He quotes Paul Rudolph, former dean at the Yale School of Architecture (from 1958–1965):
Indeed, it is characteristic of the 20th century that architects are highly selective in determining which problems they want to solve. Mies, for instance, makes wonderful buildings only because he ignores many aspects of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent.
Venturi uses classical architecture as a point of confidence, and as a language that not only can handle these complexities, but that also provides the method in which to simplify them — without being “simplistic.” He regarded the classical as the inclusive language, and the modernist the exclusive. In the face of Mies’ famous ‘less is more,’ Venturi argues that “More is not less”, and in fact, “less is bore.” It was a book that created yet another revolution in architectural trends: the postmodern. Here, architects didn’t necessarily return to classicism, but they searched for a new way, now recognizing the limitations of early modernism. As they argued about this new way, they banded together in groups with revolutionary names like “the Chicago Seven”; earlier on, there were “the Texas Rangers.” In New York, there were the “Whites” and the “Greys.” They all vouched for their own positions, hoping to make the next mark of brilliance. Some strands looked to deconstructivism, some to a version of poking fun at the classical with cartoon-like forms — recognizing classicism but not fully its friend; and some looked to a collage-like method mixing Renaissance and Corbusian elements. But as Tom Beeby once said, even within his own group, the Chicago Seven, “We didn’t agree on anything.”
Even Joseph Hudnut, who 40 years earlier, in 1936, founded Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, was uncomfortable with the outcome of his decision to bring Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius to Harvard to direct the architectural department. Once allied with Gropius as a common enemy of the old-guard classical academy, he didn’t realize until much later how different their personal views were. Hudnut feared what Modernism would do to the fabric of the American city; he also feared that modern architecture was losing “human values.” He was the first to pen the term “post-modern,” in an essay he wrote (in 1949) warning against the tendency to “mistake novelty for progress.”
The biggest problem with Hudnut, who was a humanist at heart, is that while he was this leader in trying to figure out a new way for American architecture — something he thought was more progressive than classical architecture — he belonged to a generation of thinkers that were unfortunately trying to seek truth in systems without any real tangible goals. The excitement was more about the experience than the end product. As Jill Pearlman writes, “he rarely suggested and never demonstrated any way to translate his ideas into actual buildings or new modern plans.” His students claimed that he never made his philosophy clear, whereas his émigré European contemporaries could and did. The very European modernists he procured teaching positions for in the States left him in the dust. They had vision, and goals, and methods of achieving them. This generation of modernists was first trained classically, and in this they had an innate sense for design that subsequent generations lacked. In this, they were similar to Picasso, whose abstract art was so compelling because he first drew so well classically.
However, this group espoused ideals of international socialism, handed down from English romanticism, now stoked by the age of the machine and mass-production. They had a fire in their bellies lit by the tragedies and horrors of the First World War, and then the Second. A sameness ensued, clothed in the word “equality.” History was jettisoned. They called this the architecture of “our time.” It was “modern architecture,” not because it utilized modern technology, which it did, but because it represented an entirely new way of looking at the world. It was a new world, discontinuous with the old. These ideas proliferated in our universities, locked in for decades with tenure. With this as a new foundation, American architecture spun in a direction from which it has never recovered.
Vincent Scully (1920–2017) grew up during this time. He was a legendary art history professor at Yale, where he taught six decades of students. Scully made architectural history come alive in the most tangible of ways. If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him speak, many of his lectures are available on YouTube. He once spoke to an auditorium of his Yale students:
Everybody in my generation, was brought up to despise [classical] architecture. It is really hard to imagine, but it’s really true. They’d say — oh, what a shame, that doesn’t express us, it doesn’t express our time. [Laughs] — our time! All of a sudden, we began to realize what our time was, and what classical architecture was.
He goes on to describe what classical architecture was for him: What “it was for me, when this architecture first reduced me to tears, was in John Kennedy’s funeral.” He points to a slide showing an axonometric aerial view of the Lincoln Memorial, with the road circling the monument, and describes the casket coming round:
It came around like this, and it went around like this — and when it got about here [diagonal to Lincoln] — you suddenly realized what was there. Inside, was the other martyred president, sitting in the shadows — and this great figure, by Daniel Chester French; looking out, the way we’ve come. And suddenly, you understood it all. Classical architecture has the dimension of history.
He adds about the more modern Vietnam Memorial: “And Maya Lin’s [design] . . . is so wonderful, because it calls to both [Lincoln and Washington], but it stays out of the way.” What Scully was indicating here is that, at the end of the day, classical architecture is a responsible art. At the moments when it matters most, that’s what we need.
Classicism is not a style. No architecture really is. People use the word “style” for lack of a better word. Architecture is really the manifestation of values. Classicism is the language of humanism, and a universal sense of beauty that is based on that humanism. Humanism is what America is. It is the legacy of Democratic Greece, Republican Rome, the rebirth of their ideals in the Renaissance that led to the Enlightenment — and, for us, the Scottish Enlightenment. This was the line of thought that birthed our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, and the very ideas of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Just after our nation’s Founding, there was also debate on Federal architecture and what it should be. Jefferson was set to the task. He writes to William Buchanan and James Hay from Paris in 1786:
Gentleman, I had the honor of writing to you, on the receipt of your orders to procure draughts for the public buildings. . . . In the execution of these orders, two methods of proceeding presented themselves to my mind. The one was, to leave to some architect to draw an external according to his fancy, in which way, experience shews, that, once in a thousand times, a pleasing form is hit upon; the other was, to take some model already devised, and approved by the general suffrage of the world. I had no hesitation in deciding that the latter was best, nor after the decision was there any doubt what model to take. There is at Nismes, in the south of France, a building called Maison quarrée, erected in the time of the Caesars, and which is allowed, without contradiction, to be the most perfect and precious remain of antiquity in existence. Its superiority over any thing at Rome, in Greece, at Balbec or Palmyra, is allowed on all hands. . . . I determined, therefore, to adopt this model. . . . We know that the Maison querrée has pleased, universally, for near two thousand years.
Jefferson chose the Maison Carrée (42 B.C.) as the model for the first Virginia statehouse, not only for its history, but because it had proven to endure over time and was considered to be universally beautiful, as he wanted the new republic to endure.
If you’re wondering why so many federal buildings today are in large part unattractive, it’s because of the current guiding principles for federal architecture. The current principles were written in the 1960s, a time when we produced the worst architecture in our history. And while they call for buildings to convey “dignity,” “enterprise,” “vigor,” and “stability,” they have not provided an effective enough standard through which to achieve or measure this. Furthermore, the guidelines discourage the use of the language of architecture that surveys say most Americans like best.
Trump’s executive order for federal architecture is an attempt to rectify these issues, and to provide a method for achieving more beautiful federal buildings; in this, it attempts to create a standard. It uses and prefers classical and traditional architecture as models that have stood the test of time. While it doesn’t allow for brutalist and deconstructivist architecture, it “does not exclude the experimentation of new, alternative styles.” In the case of these other styles, it states: “care must be taken to fully ensure that such alternative designs command respect by the public for their beauty and visual embodiment of America’s ideals.” It puts the flow of design back in the hands of the people, by opening review of design competitions to a public not associated with the design industry. It establishes a re-beautification committee of qualified and appointed people tasked with recommending revisions to the current principles and General Services Administration policy. Even here, it opens these recommendations to the public for comment.
Classical architecture is a point of confidence that stands on its three principles: that buildings endure, be functional, and be beautiful. The last of these three things is the great unifier. Beauty calls us to something higher than ourselves. To create beautiful federal buildings that represent and inspire us should be an architectural challenge of our day.