In February, the White House leaked plans to introduce the “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” bill, which was roundly opposed by architects. On July 13th the “Democracy in Design” bill was drafted to counter it. Surprised to learn that Donald Trump is an architecture aficionado? Well, he is not. This is the man who in 1980 demolished the Art Deco treasure Stewart/Bonwit Teller building in New York, to make way for Trump Tower. He had his workers, undocumented Polish immigrants who were paid $4 an hour, take jackhammers to irreplaceable sculptures and elaborate metalwork, reneging on his promise to donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The architect of Trump Tower had planned to incorporate the sculptures into the new building, but was overruled by Trump, who unilaterally decided that they had “no artistic merit”. This is the builder of nearly a dozen glass and steel monoliths bearing his name around the world. This is about power, revenge, and a culture war against anything perceived to be associated with “liberal elites”.
The bill would essentially do two things: it would reverse the 1962 mandate that “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa”, and replace it with a broad mandate that Neoclassical is the “default” style. This would apply to federal courthouses and agency headquarters, and to all buildings using over $50 million in federal money. It would also apply to renovations and additions of existing federal buildings. The order would implement a “re-beautification committee” to discuss designs, but the White House would ultimately decide what is approved.
The newly appointed cabinet member who introduced the bill is a member of the National Civic Art Society, an aspirational name for a conservative think tank. The leadership of the NCAS is comprised of people from, among other things, the Heritage Foundation (who provided the policy rationale for the Iraq war), the American Enterprise Institute, Commentary magazine, and The American Conservative. Their website features a manifesto on contemporary architecture that asserts that all post World War II styles are worthless. They claim all forms of modern architecture “reject traditional standards of beauty and harmony. Indeed, ‘beauty’ is a forbidden word,” Besides this bill, their other current priority is keeping confederate monuments up at all costs. This statement is pinned to their homepage:
“NCAS decries the lawless destruction and vandalization of public monuments taking place in the United States today. Across the land and in numbers never before seen on American soil, mobs have pulled down or defaced statues of presidents, generals, missionaries, abolitionists, pacifists, explorers, and authors….In too many cases, the iconoclasts have acted with impunity, as local elected officials and police failed to protect art which resulted from public deliberation.”
The “MFBBA” mandate explicitly bans brutalism without exceptions. It goes on to describe it’s undesirable qualities as “fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry, and the appearance of instability”. On the surface this vehement hatred of brutalism seems bizarre. Brutalism, from the French phrase beton brut, “raw concrete”, features large, abstract concrete shapes that seem to defy physics. It was immensely popular in Communist countries, an association that I’m sure is not lost on conservatives. In its worst form it is overbearing and soulless. In its finest form it is inspiring, whimsical, and beautiful. The broad use of this term likely actually includes bauhaus, international style, and postmodern architecture. Trump openly hates the idea of “brutalism”, though perhaps simply because he associates it with the FBI. “Even the building is terrible, it’s one of the brutalist-type buildings, you know, brutalist. Honestly, I think it’s one of the ugliest buildings in the city.” Or perhaps he hates all architecture except the White House and his Towers, mirror glass monstrosities in a style that has been aptly described as “dictator chic”. The man is not an academic.
As much as this mandate vilifies brutalism, it worships neoclassicism. I must add here that as a preservationist, I love and defend traditional architecture and almost always prefer it over new construction. Neoclassicism can be nuanced and majestic. It can be Palladian, baroque, Beaux Arts, mannerist. There are fine examples around the world. However, there seems to often be one iteration of it that is seen in our government buildings, and it is doric, dour and imposing. Sterile ornamentation, few windows, an elevated first floor, and a labyrinthine floor plan are often featured. The examples of acceptable architecture offered by the NCAS include the White House, Capital Building, and Jefferson Memorial. I don’t think Neoclassicism could get more dour, or more sterile than those examples, but perhaps they’ll come up with something if this bill passes.
Modern architects sought to let in more light, and make public buildings more accessible and comfortable to the average citizen. Many styles of 19th and 20th century architecture find ways to do this with elegance. Buildings in the Art Deco style, such as the one Trump had demolished, can accommodate a realistic volume of employees, while still elevating craftsmanship and beauty. With 21st century desires for climate control, natural light, elevators, and for each employee to drive their own car to work, the purist Greek temple poses significant logistical problems. It is also important to remember Brutalism and other post World War II styles in context- after the defeat of rampant fascism across Europe, people wanted to create something new and progressive. These buildings were not only solutions to logistical problems, but powerful statements. The NCAS’ regressive philosophy fails to acknowledge the incredible diversity of our nation’s architectural history, choosing to favor primarily the legacies of white, slave owning men and to exclude all modernism without regard to the building’s function.
This vehement loathing is not without precedent. Adolf Hitler reviled modernism and abstraction in all forms. In Nazi philosophy, ethics and aesthetics were one, and his racial purification program began with aesthetic purification. Public architecture was the central obsession of his “beautification program”. Buildings perceived as ugly or as associated with ethnic minorities were replaced with buildings that exemplified both the ultimate authority of the state, and Aryan perfection. His chosen style, of course, was Neoclassicism. Stalin also banned “avant-garde” architecture in favor of Neoclassical styles that boasted the wealth and power of the state. Mussolini favored a stripped down, futuristic version of Neoclassicism, though fixation on ancient Rome was still central to it. Despite the slight difference in stylistic preference, his attitude of entitlement to every aspect of his nation’s culture, and of superiority to expert input, was identical.
In the United States we have a unique relationship to these classical forms. It is no surprise that the NCAS, who believe that “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson invented the architecture of American democracy”, are also deeply committed to keeping monuments to slave owning confederates in our public spaces. This is not about simple aesthetic preferences. This is about adhering to the Jeffersonian ideal of the columned, pedimented temple that was revered by the slave owning upper class. Obsession with rationality and with Greek and Roman culture has long been a way to divide “authentic” art and architecture from the foreign, modern “other”. Intense loathing of everything that is “irrational”, abstract, and unpredictable walks hand in hand with colonialism, and its desire to eradicate cultures seen as less rational and therefore inferior. The overlap between European architecture purists and open white supremacists is significant. From a blog on the racist site The Daily Stormer: “These monuments are reminders that we used to be a great people and can be so again. In the 19th century, the Southern people were a race of masters, explorers, settlers, statesmen, military leaders and orators. We see neoclassical Greco-Roman architecture and Greek and Roman place names all over the South because that’s who our classically educated ancestors admired and wanted to be like.” Writing for American Renaissance, neo-nazi Gregory Hood called the “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” mandate “one small step toward reuniting white Americans with our civilizational tradition” and argued that other forms of architecture “reinforce an idea of racial deracination” and “alienate white people from their past” in order to “make them feel helpless, rootless, and weak.”
Despite these revolting associations, I do not think opponents should be reactionary and attempt to disown classicism. That would be missing the larger point, which is that top down mandates about the arts are inherently undemocratic. As with virtually every other committee in his administration, Trump is refusing to hire impartial experts or professionals, instead he has hired his members of the reptilian NCAS. A democracy allows democratic participation, especially when taxpayer dollars and public spaces are involved. A dictatorship takes power away from experts and professionals to do their jobs, and instead seeks to control what they do to suit the whims of the dictator.
And, of course, classical antiquity wasn’t “white”. The ancient architecture that Neoclassical purists idolize was hugely influenced by north African buildings, as the Roman empire stretched from Morocco to Iran. Ancient Greek temples were influenced by Indian and Central Asian culture. The style this bill is endorsing is a white washed 19th century version of a diverse culture from millenia ago. But for Trump and his supporters, these facts are irrelevant. In the MAGA era, strict adherence to “tradition” has become a dog whistle for xenophobia and racism. Coming from an administration that refuses to condemn white supremacy in our country, this mandate is clearly part of an ideological agenda, not a desire to elevate preservation of traditional architecture. The plutocratic police state Trump has created is far from the democratic ideals of ancient Rome, and no amount of columns and pediments is going to fix that.
by Nora Goddard, Hestia Paint & Restoration
Phineas Harper, “Traditional architecture has frequently been leveraged to support violent political agendas”
Kay Gutschow, “Why so Many Architects are Angered by MFBBA”
Jonathan Hilburg, “Proposed Democracy in Design Act would head off neoclassical executive order”
Martin Pedersen, “The Not-So-Hidden Agenda Against Gehry’s DC Memorial”
Will Wiles, “What Trump’s Desire to ‘Make Architecture Beautiful Again’ Really Means”
Sarah Manavis “How architecture-themed Twitter accounts became a magnet for white nationalism”
Bridget Cogley “Trump’s Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again Decries Brutalist and deconstructivist architecture”
Elizabeth Blair “Just Plain Ugly’: Proposed Executive Order Takes Aim At Modern Architecture”
Steve Madeja “The Bonwit Teller Building: How Donald Trump Destroyed an Art Deco Treasure”
Diana Budds, “Hey, Remember When Trump Destroyed Precious Art History?”
Jonathan Glancey “The Unbuilt Nazi Pantheon: Unpacking Albert Speer’s “Volkshalle”
R. Joe “With climate denier Myron Ebell as Trump’s pick to run the EPA what is the future for Historic Preservation?”
Justine Coleman, “Trump plans on ‘Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again’ with executive order”If you like this article, please share it!