Government architecture is not a subject that typically gets much public attention. That changed in February with the leaking of a draft presidential executive order that would re-orient federal architecture in a traditional direction, including a requirement that new office buildings in Washington be classical in design.
Controversy erupted. The American Institute of Architects wailed: “President Trump, this draft order is antithetical to giving the ‘people’ a voice and would set an extremely harmful precedent.” Then came the media pile-on, with The New York Times sneering about “fake Roman temples,” and Wired fretting about the “new architects of fear.” Numerous other outlets rushed to make comparisons to Hitler.
In reality, an order like this would respect longstanding precedent and properly return federal architecture to its origins. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson conceived that classical architecture — harkening back to democratic Greece and republican Rome — best embodied the new nation’s ideals.
Seeing classical architecture as unsurpassed in beauty and grandeur, not to mention its reflection of reason and order, these two founders personally oversaw the design of the White House and Capitol, and ensured that the capital city was planned along classical lines. Such features as columns, pediments, pillars and domes came to visually symbolize American democracy and set the precedent for nearly 150 years. Indeed, in 1901, the Treasury Department codified existing practice by making classicism the official style.
In 1962, however, the White House’s “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” rejected official classicism in favor of Modernism — the austere, functionalist aesthetic, which, together with its post-modernist progeny, dominates federal architecture to this day. Since 1994, only six of the 78 federal buildings constructed under the current design program have been classical or traditional.
What do the American people have to show for all the post-war construction done in their name? Much of it would have looked more at home in the dreary cities of our Soviet rivals: buildings like the Brutalist J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, famously loathed by President Trump. The hulking concrete pile that is home to the Department of Housing and Urban Development has received bipartisan condemnation from its various occupants. Republican HUD Secretary Jack Kemp called it “10 floors of basement,” whereas a later Democratic successor, Shaun Donovan, said the building was “among the most reviled in all of Washington — and with good reason.”
The General Services Administration, the agency overseeing the design and construction of government buildings, insists on calling the HUD headquarters an “outstanding Modern achievement.” More recent GSA buildings, some of them avant-garde, have been variously derided as a “Borg cube,” “hulking, aggressive tower” and having a “sinister dimension.”
Is this really what American citizens actually want in their federal architecture? The opposition to Trump’s purportedly “undemocratic” order completely ignored that key democratic question.
Thanks to a Harris Poll survey (available at civicart.org) on behalf of the National Civic Art Society, the organization I lead, we now have the answer: Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) prefer classical and traditional architecture for US courthouses and federal office buildings. The poll found a widespread preference for traditional style among all demographic groups: women and men (77 and 67 percent respectively); African-Americans, whites and Hispanics (62, 75 and 65 percent); even across generations and income levels. The survey results were also strongly bipartisan, with 70 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans favoring the traditional option.
Our survey comports with prior studies. As The Wall Street Journal reported, a 2007 Harris poll commissioned by the AIA showed “Americans preferred older buildings that evoke ancient architectural styles such as Gothic, Greek and Roman traditions. Of the top 50 [buildings], only 12 can be described as ‘modern-looking.’ ” Numerous peer-reviewed academic studies have found a great disconnect between the aesthetic preferences of contemporary architects and ordinary people.
The architectural establishment has been trying to quash democratic preferences for years. But unlike the tiny minority of elites howling over the executive order, when normal people see a classical courthouse, they don’t see a “fake Roman temple” — they see a temple of justice. Nothing could be more democratic than an executive order that gives the American people what they want.
Justin Shubow is President of the National Civic Art Society and a member of the US Commission of Fine Arts.
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