Magazine March 9, 2020, Issue

Column Calumny

U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., March 2019 (Leah Millis/Reuters)

When the Trump administration issued a rule change bringing back the classical style to federal buildings, the pundit class went from zero to Hitler in record time. Pediments and pillars? The gateway to fascism. 

You might think fascism had more prominent and worrisome characteristics—say, “take the guns, banish industries the leading class does not like, and herd everyone into state-run programs, and then, after lunch, draw up more sanctions against the only Jewish state on the planet.” No, that’s leftism, and hence it’s progressive! Making buildings look traditional instead of resembling a heap of broken glass covered in tinfoil? Genocide’s around the corner.

Perhaps many architects don’t like the idea because they cannot design in the classical style. They wouldn’t know where to start. It’s like a substitute teacher showing up in poetry class and insisting everyone use meter and rhyme. They won’t admit that, of course, so we get the following arguments against the classical norm. 

1. Federal design standards are fascistic! We have no such rules today, only vague guidelines laid down by the sainted Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962. He wanted to encourage architectural diversity in federal buildings—which, in 1962, was like encouraging a broader color palette in a tuxedo shop. There’s only so much you can do with a featureless box other than put up a sign to tell people whether it’s the Post Office, the Public Health Building, the Federal Courthouse, or the Emperor’s New Clothes Warehouse.

My neighborhood has a post office from 1962, and it has a tidy modern appeal—not for what it is, but for what it represents. It’s a machine with a technocratic ethos. You look at those floating marble stairs with aluminum railings and think, “Those boys at the RAND Corporation are going to put the IBM computers to work and get us out of Vietnam in a year, tops.” 

Anyway, the number of classical-style federal buildings that will be designed and built in the next four years is probably quite small, assuming Trump wins reelection. President Klobuchar or President Buttigieg might well make a return to pitiless concrete death-bunkers an action item for the first 100 days, although Bernie Sanders might stay his hand: 

“When I was in Russia! Which had problems, nevuh said it didn’t! But! The nomenklatura had nice buildings with columns, and chanduhleeuhs! Ornuhment wasn’t just for the rich!” 

2. It’s white supremacism. They love classicism because a Renaissance Catholic church shows the tremendous aesthetic and engineering power of the West. Same goes for art. Ergo the National Gallery is basically Klan Central.

3. The appeal to a mythical past is an old dictator trick. They call up a glorious lost history to justify their rule, associating themselves with an architectural vocabulary that appeals to a narrow, exclusionary conception of the culture. One critic of the proposal noted the parallels between the Senate acquittal of Trump and Rome’s descent into autocracy under Augustus, adding, “Classical architecture helped maintain the masquerade in ancient Rome, and do we want it to happen again here?”

Hmm. Imagine the Chief Roman Architect conferring with Augustus.

“In which style shall I build the temples and basilicas, First Citizen?”

“What do you mean, which style? Roman style, you imbecile.” 

And so the architect went to work. A few years later, people gathering in the Forum looked up at the resplendent new buildings, and the wisest among them grumbled: “Those may be the trappings of the republic, but they only seek to mask Augustus’s ongoing erosion of our norms, as we sink deeper and deeper into autocracy.”

“How true you speak,” said another man. “Oh for the days of our glorious republic, before Augustus. Well, before Julius Caesar. Well, before the reign of Pompey, dictator in all but name. Well, before the tyranny of Sulla, who skillfully exploited the anti-republican idea that troops were loyal to their general, not to Rome itself, which one could say paved the way for this day when we have yet another in a series of strongmen who drape themselves in the language of a dead political order, but yes, you’re absolutely right, it’s so much worse now.”

“Except for the end to all the civil strife.”

“There’s that, yes.”

4. If Trump wants to return to the past, why didn’t he drive around the NASCAR circuit in a chariot?

Great point! Really sharp. Have you heard of Twitter? They’d love you there. Anyway, Trump’s taste is all over the map. We suspect his taste in interior design is gaudy arriviste—gilded toilet flush handles, more candelabras than the Liberace Museum—but the buildings themselves are quite modern, whatever modern happened to be at the time. Trump Tower, finished in 1979, has aged better than the plain mirror-glass boxes of the era. His building in Las Vegas is almost an abstraction of wealth: a faceted gold bar stood up on its end. Trump World Tower in New York is the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I’m still surprised the plaza isn’t full of hooting monkeys brandishing shin bones. 

The last time modern American architecture looked even slightly classical was in the Thirties, when WPA Moderne was the rage for post offices. The old motifs were flattened and stylized, and historical references reformed into a new, forward-looking aesthetic that expressed the power of the state. Those buildings looked more like Hitler’s soulless fascist aesthetic than anything the administration has suggested. Imagine if Trump had decreed that federal buildings should be designed in the style of the Thirties, just because he thought it was cool. Even though he was reviving the style of FDR, he’d still be literally Hitler.

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It will be something if 2020 ends up being a choice between a crass and vain New York City billionaire with an ugly Twitter habit and Donald Trump.
Athwart

Column Calumny

When the Trump administration brought back the classical style to federal buildings, the pundit class went from zero to Hitler in record time.

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