Making Architecture Work Again

It’s not often that questions of architectural style make the news. I suppose I should at least address this topic, if only because I am an AIA member, and this is the only field I have actual qualifications in.

According to an exclusive report by Architectural Record, the predictably named “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” executive order would seek to reposition classically inspired architecture as the country’s default public building style. The shift comes in opposition to the longstanding style agnosticism displayed by public buildings in recent decades following the creation of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture directive crafted in 1962 by former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Moynihan’s directive—which states that “The development of an official style must be avoided” and that “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa”—has resulted in a wide ranging set of innovative public building projects that embrace contemporary design strategies and material approaches, including the SOM-designed New United States Court House in Los Angeles, Morphosis’s San Francisco Federal Building, and the United States Courthouse in Austin, Texas designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects.

New executive order could make classical architecture “the preferred and default style” for America’s public buildings (Archinect)

The history is pretty unequivocal on this issue. Fascist and authoritarian regimes have customarily been backward-looking and historically have had a fascination with distinctive architectural styles, typically favoring classical and rationalist styles as representations of order, strength, and power. Mussolini had an entire suburb built in Rome to demonstrate his own favored style of architecture which hearkened back to his obsession with ancient Rome. It’s still there:

Begun in 1936, the EUR project was to become the site of the 1942 World’s Fair, an idealized Fascist wonderland complete with stately rationalized architecture that was designed to pay tribute to both the glorious past and future of the Roman Empire. Designed under the initial direction of Italian architect Marcello Piacentini, the original structures of the EUR district were all built of limestone, tuff, and marble. Their simplified neoclassicism is evident in both their traditional materiality and their more overt stylistic themes, which included the use of columns, arches, and classic Roman statuary, the combination of which made for a magnificent city within a city.

Rome’s Fascist-Era EUR District in the Heart of the Eternal City (Skyrise Cities)

Hitler (who once flirted with architecture school), was also an enthusiastic fan of specific types of architectural styles, which he patronized during his regime. His plan for Berlin featured the vast Germania dome (the Volkshalle), which was intended to be large enough to have its own weather patterns (although I’m pretty sure that’s apocryphal). Fascist regimes in general tended to heap scorn on anything that remotely smacked of “modernism,” which was depicted a decadent and leftist (and often Jewish).

Wikipedia even has an entry devoted to fascist architecture:

When Mussolini took office, he took on the role of bringing about fascism and idealism to replace democracy in Italy. He utilized all forms of media along with architectural identity. The new modernist style of architecture was one way to help build his vision of a unified fascist Italy. When Mussolini called for a fascist style of architecture, architects used the style to imitate that of imperial Rome and to bring historical pride and a sense of nationalism to the Italian people. Fascist architecture was one of many ways for Mussolini to invigorate a cultural rebirth in Italy and to mark a new era of Italian culture under fascism.

Similarly, once Hitler came to power in 1933 and transformed the German Chancellory to a dictatorship, he used fascist architecture in the form of Stripped Classicism as one of many tools to help unify and nationalize Germany under his rule. Hitler had plans to rebuild Berlin after the axis powers won World War II under the name Germania, or Welthauptstadt Germania. Hitler had his favorite architect, Albert Speer, design this new metropolis using fascist architecture design.

Fascist Architecture (Wikipedia)

The fascists actually preferred a form of stripped classicism and architectural rationalism rather than the pure classical Greco-Roman style that is invoked by the new executive order. Interestingly, one of the major influences on fascist architecture was the prominent Franco-American architect Paul Cret, who designed, among many other things, the Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington D.C.

So there’s a bad precedent here. One wonders if the new executive order will incorporate the theory of ruin value (Ruinenwert), which, given the state of the United States these days, might actually be a good idea.

Hitler accordingly approved Speer’s recommendation that, in order to provide a “bridge to tradition” to future generations, modern “anonymous” materials such as steel girders and ferroconcrete should be avoided in the construction of monumental party buildings, since such materials would not produce aesthetically acceptable ruins like those wherever possible. Thus, the most politically significant buildings of the Reich were intended, to some extent, even after falling into ruins after thousands of years, to resemble their Roman models.

Ruin Value (Wikipedia) Where I live in the Postindustrial Midwest, a good portion of the buildings are ruins already. Detroit, once one of the richest cities in the world, is famous for them, with entire books published about them.

What I’m wondering is, why the sudden interest in architecture? Prominent politicians have avoided sticking their grubby fingers into the subject before, at least not in the present era, as far as I’m aware. After all, the Republicans have held power, more or less, since 1980 (at least ideologically). Yet there’s never been any interest in controlling architectural styles under any previous regime—Reagan, or either Bushes. Why now?

For centuries, autocrats, authoritarians, and dictators have held a fascination with using architecture as a political tool to glorify their regimes, often while also dismissing modern architectural styles as lowbrow, cold, or weak. The current crop of far-right world leaders with authoritarian impulses is no different—and that now appears to include President Donald Trump.

Last week, the trade magazine Architectural Record obtained a copy of a draft executive order from the White House, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” that would require newly built or upgraded federal structures to hew to “the classical architectural style.” It doesn’t strictly specify what the “classical” style encompasses, but it cites the infrastructure of “republican Rome” as its inspiration…

As many critics of the draft order have pointed out, while there is much to appreciate in classical and neoclassical buildings, admirers of these styles have long included authoritarians who see these schools as embodying the glory of the state. Adolf Hitler notoriously held a fascination with classical architecture, as did other fascist leaders of his time. When totalitarianism flourished across Europe, so did “fascist architecture,” or the construction of new federal monuments and buildings in the same architectural style. More than just a way to telegraph leaders’ political vision for the country, it was a way to inspire and reinforce national unity, inextricably weaving together lived experience and political philosophy. At the heart of all that building was a belief that architecture could be a political statement about whom society serves and what it values.

“Classical” Architecture Is Just One Way Tyrants Build in Their Own Image (Slate)

To me, this is all part of a new turn in Republican rule, alongside their use of blatant agitprop and attempts to transform the U.S. into a de facto one party state.

It further cements the transformation of the Republican Party into one mainly preoccupied with cultural issues more than anything else. Rather than a pro-wealth, anti-worker, economically-oriented party as it has historically been, the new Republican Party centers itself mainly around cultural issues: anti-egalitarianism, an obsession with strength and might, contempt for institutions and the rule of law, opposition to modernism, hatred of intellectuals and intellectualism, and a disdain for social movements like feminism and gay rights; combined with strident ethno-nationalism. The non-ideologically-based pro-wealth, anti-worker party is now the mainstream Democrats (as demonstrated by their extreme opposition to the Sanders candidacy). The Republican Party is now something else entirely, something possibly new in the American experience.

With its pivot towards white identity politics and socio-cultural issues, it aligns with many of the other right-wing movements which are achieving power simultaneously all across the globe, in a sort of real-life domino effect: Poland, Hungary, Russia, China, Brazil, the Philippines. Many other countries are on a similar trajectory: India, Italy, Australia, the U.K., etc. It’s not too much to say, I think, that the vast majority of the world’s population right now lives under at least a quasi-authoritarian regime, and it’s only getting worse as the twenty-first century unfolds.

And unlike their erstwhile twentieth-century counterparts, these regimes show no signs of burning themselves out anytime soon.

Online, traditional architecture enthusiasts, white suprematists, and other groups have aligned their shared passions for classical aesthetics with sordid nationalist politics to consistently weaponize classical motifs under a variety of nativist mantles. Increasingly, classical orders, fluted columns, and dentilled cornices have come to symbolize not simply solid, timeless architectural motifs but also the “Whites Only” idealized version of the past these groups seek to celebrate today. As in other facets of federal policy, President Trump’s long-running embrace of nativist politics is, with the potential executive order, gesturing toward and growing to absorb these discourses into the country’s legal and regulatory apparatuses.

New executive order could make classical architecture “the preferred and default style” for America’s public buildings (Archinect)

The order also uncomfortably evokes the standard-issue reactionary weltanschauung, which has persisted since at least the late nineteenth-century: that the decadent Postmodernists and the Marxists (or the Postmodern Neo-Marxists) are engaged in a vast conspiracy to undermine society’s core values. This aligns itself with the Reactionary Right’s embrace of conspiracy theories more generally.

…for the social conservatives of Architecture Twitter, that brutalist buildings still stand is testament to the West having lost faith in itself. Last year, ArchitecturalRevival, one of Twitter’s most popular architecture accounts with more than 40,000 followers, was accused of promoting white nationalism under the guise of appreciating “cultural tradition,” “beauty” and a “hyperborean worldview.” These terms, while seemingly innocuous, were, according to the New Statesman, used by Twitter accounts that regularly post content rife with anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda. While ArchitecturalRevival hasn’t formally apologized or addressed the retweets, the British architectural magazine Archinect reported that in 2017 the account tweeted, “Where there is ugliness, we will bring beauty. Where there is chaos, we will bring order. Where there is vice, we will bring virtue.”

Other traditional architecture accounts that mostly share pictures of old gothic cathedrals and European baroque structures also have been called out for promoting alt-right and far-right figures who use terms like “traditional” to promote anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic content. For example, TradWestern Art has tweeted, “Reading Nietzsche followed by Evola can cure you of atheism,” while claiming that modern architecture is eradicating “white identity.” And MagicalEurope, a 50,000 follower-strong account that posts pictures of “traditional European culture,” has gone as far as to suggest that Turkey isn’t a real country, in an attempt to downplay the influence of Muslim architects in European traditionalism.

How the Alt-Right Infiltrated Architecture Twitter — And Turned Notre-Dame Into a Political Lightning Rod (Mel Magazine)

The impetus for this appears to be an organization called the National Civic Art Society:

It’s true that modernism abounds in D.C. Standing on a street corner near the National Mall, there’s actually a mishmash of architectural styles. Let’s talk about three of them: In the distance, the gleaming white pillars of the U.S. Capitol dome, the kind of classical architecture the president’s order favors. Closer in, there’s a towering, steel-mesh scrim that’s part of the Eisenhower Memorial, a contemporary design by Frank Gehry which is under construction. Right behind the scrim, there’s the beige, boxy, concrete-heavy Department of Education, a Brutalist building — the style a lot of people love to hate.

Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society is one of them. He looks at this entire vista with disgust. “From where I’m standing, I see modernist structures, and the only hint of a classical building I can see is the top of the U.S. dome,” he says. “That is not what our founders had in mind. This is a new reigning orthodoxy of modernist, Brutalist, postmodern design.” (Brutalism was a popular movement with architects beginning in the 1950s, but it’s mostly fallen out of favor.) The Society led a six-year campaign against Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial, which forced the architect to make some changes to his orginal design.

‘Just Plain Ugly’: Proposed Executive Order Takes Aim At Modern Architecture (NPR)

Once again, we’re playing out the passion play of the 1930’s and the run up to World War Two in almost excruciating detail, just with the players changed.

Now, long-time readers know I’m highly critical of modern architecture. And I stand behind that criticism. I think it’s important and necessary not to become a hermetically-sealed echo-chamber. The fact is, we as a profession have often failed to listen to the public, and assumed the role of elitist aesthete taste-makers. We have discarded millennia of good design in favor of novelty and abstract theories. It is true that the public have voted with their feet and dollars to embrace traditional neighborhoods and rejected much of what has been built after World War Two (which was driven mainly by developers, not architects). The places most visited by tourists are, by-and-large, places where modern design is largely absent, such as Paris and Venice.

America’s Favorite Architecture (Wikipedia)

This post provides a good criticism of the way America has built since the Second World War:

Much of the rest of the world takes for granted architectural principles of how to build life-affirming human settlements. These principles evolved over thousands of years, and it’s no accident that so many cultures reached the same conclusions. Urban Europeans, and indeed Armenians, are accustomed to vertical growth, mixed-use development (shops on first floor, apartments above), sidewalks, plazas, public squares and street cafes. These are the fixtures amidst which your halcyon childhood days played out, where you walked hand in hand with your first love, where you met friends for coffee, and hopped the train to work. It’s the corner with the pastry shop, it’s the supermarket down the street, and the bench in between.

Few people can prepare themselves for the degree to which Americans have, in the last half-century or so, taken this entire corpus of human experience and thrown it completely into the trash, with the exception of a few older cities–not the places where the majority of Americans live. What has replaced it is a surreal moonscape. For those accustomed to the traditional urban civilisation, the primary question in America is: where do I go? What do I do? Looking around leads to an intangible but intense realisation of emptiness.

Suburbia is both a cause and an effect of the destruction of civic and community life in America: there’s increasingly little to come home to, and vanishingly little to go out to. This has real effects. Your children will have nowhere to play, as there is no courtyard full of friends; they will depend on your willingness to drive them (sometimes quite far) for prearranged “play dates”. You will not take leisurely strolls to admire the scenery, for there is neither admirable scenery nor anywhere to stroll. It’s likely that you won’t even know your neighbours. You certainly can’t venture downstairs for lettuce or milk; strict zoning codes have ensured that only residential structures can be built where you live, and you’ll have to drive a few miles to reach the commercial zone, where the grocery stores are.

What Armenians should know about life in America (Likewise A Blog). See also: Why suburbia sucks

That gives me an opportunity to post this important post, which I have struggled to find a place for:

The Rise of the Architectural Cult (Nikos Salingaros)

Nikos Salingaros is reviewing a book entitled Making Dystopia by James Stevens Curl, a prominent British architectural historian. At the outset, Salingaros (himself an author of several books, some in my library) states the premise:

Architecture shapes human society and drives much of its commercial and economic engine. The inhabited world is covered with giant glass skyscrapers, factories, museums of contemporary art, concert halls, university buildings, and houses. In Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl argues that the preferred style in which many new buildings are created is ill adapted to the human senses, generating a permanent condition of stress from our environment.

Curl has several goals in this scholarly, well-documented book:

  • Demonstrate that contemporary architectural culture, with ideological origins in the 1920s, has created a dystopian environment for users.
  • Explain how a tiny group was able to impose on the world an architecture of abstraction that is, as Curl sees it, devoid of sense.
  • Show that three key figures—Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—insisted upon the global homogenization of architecture and ignored local conditions of climate, culture, and evolved traditions.
  • Document how biological aspects of architecture necessary for healing environments, such as ornamentation, the human scale, a sense of enclosure, positive tactile qualities, and complex color harmonies, were expunged.
  • Examine the historical, political, and psychological reasons why people have accepted shaping our environment in this manner.

Why would architects in the 1920s turn their backs on vital mechanisms for connecting humans to the world, necessary to ensure long-term mental and physical health? It is certainly true that the neurological mechanisms for relating to our environment were unknown back then. Curl argues, in addition, that a small group of architects sought to achieve fame by promoting a novelty that turned out to be counterintuitive and dangerous. He devotes roughly the first 200 pages of his book to documenting how this agenda was implemented.

Curl also addresses topics such as the science of design, cults and substitute religions, and how totalitarian systems arise. The book starts as architectural history and becomes an indictment of a movement. The contemporary built environment, dictated primarily by style, lacks key geometrical features that human biology craves. Scientists, who should have been the first to notice this discrepancy, unwisely or naively left the shaping of our world in the hands of the architects.

The Rise of the Architectural Cult. Do read the whole thing-it’s worth it. As someone who has actually been through an architectural education program, I can attest to the cultist nature of architectural instruction (complete with sleep deprivation).

In a follow-up letter to the review, Curl himself writes:

Modernism in architecture, for the first time in the history of the world, succeeded in imposing one manner of building globally, no matter what the climatic conditions, local requirements, and skills available. It ignored context completely, because the past was of no value to its perpetrators. When drawing boards and T squares were consigned to oblivion, practitioners programmed computers to produce structures that conformed to the latest fad, such as Derrida-inspired deconstructivism—a topic on which Saligaros has written intelligently and with devastating accuracy—and curvy parametricism. Buildings became stratospherically costly and alien to humanity, considering neither environmental nor human needs. One can hear very clearly the sibilance of banknotes cascading into grasping paws, the oily squelch of palms being greased, the click of computer keys as eyewatering sums are transferred from one account to another, and the dim murmurings of hagiographers, critics, and journalists as they establish a consensus of approval for the inexcusable (and presumably gain materially for so doing).

Architecture, a public art, matters to us all. Questioning its qualities should not be the preserve of a small coterie of self-appointed professionals, propped up by pseudoscience and browbeating any dissent. Real scientists should start to examine the claims of starchitects and their followers—probing, dissecting, and then demolishing the pretensions, obfuscatory language, and arrogant disregard of everything except celebrity and money that are characteristics of this group. Since the modernist movement gained control, chaos has been produced where once was order. That state of affairs is revealed in my book…

Building Bad (Inference Review)

I’m reasonably confident in saying that Salingaros’ criticism (and Curl’s) is not based in white supremacy. So It’s important to note, if there is any doubt, that criticism of modern architecture does not make you a white supremacist! That’s not what I’m saying. Not at all.

Additionally, criticism of modern architecture is hardly an exclusively right-wing reactionary position. For example, this article, Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, appears in the journal Current Affairs, a notable Left-wing publication.

The fact is, contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies. Try telling that to architects and their acolytes, though, and you’ll get an earful about why your feeling is misguided, the product of some embarrassing misconception about architectural principles. One defense, typically, is that these eyesores are, in reality, incredible feats of engineering. After all, “blobitecture”—which, we regret to say, is a real school of contemporary architecture—is created using complicated computer-driven algorithms! You may think the ensuing blob-structure looks like a tentacled turd, or a crumpled kleenex, but that’s because you don’t have an architect’s trained eye.

Another thing you will often hear from design-school types is that contemporary architecture is honest. It doesn’t rely on the forms and usages of the past, and it is not interested in coddling you and your dumb feelings. Wake up, sheeple! Your boss hates you, and your bloodsucking landlord too, and your government fully intends to grind you between its gears. That’s the world we live in! Get used to it! Fans of Brutalism—the blocky-industrial-concrete school of architecture—are quick to emphasize that these buildings tell it like it is, as if this somehow excused the fact that they look, at best, dreary, and, at worst, like the headquarters of some kind of post-apocalyptic totalitarian dictatorship.

Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture (Current Affairs)

Current Affairs’ founder and publisher (and co-author of the above piece), Nathan J. Robinson, is the author of a recently published a book entitled Why You Should be a Socialist. So, again, hardly a right-wing reactionary. In another piece, The Power of Anarchist Analysis, he writes of contemporary architecture:

It’s funny, it seems like this should be a comparatively uncontroversial one, but I get the most hate mail when I write about architecture, which only encourages me (as a stubborn anarchist) to be more provocative. To me, it is obvious that something has gone deeply and troublingly wrong with built spaces. They are not just undemocratic but they also do not provide feelings of aesthetic bliss. Architectural consensus is actually more rigid than the consensus you’ll find almost anywhere else. If you try building something like this or this or this you will be laughed at. There is a dogma that buildings must look “like their time,” which is used to mean “you must design things that look like the things that are currently designed.” A minimalist aesthetic is enforced and nobody is allowed to produce anything that looks like it could have been erected before 1945. You only very rarely see truly interesting new experiments (like New Andean architecture in Bolivia).

The Power of Anarchist Analysis (Current Affairs). Unfortunately, I find his examples of “good” architecture to be rather treacly (Thomas Kincade meets The Hobbit). But the point still stands.

He also recently wrote a piece critical of contemporary healthcare architecture.

Why are hospitals so unpleasant? I mean, yes, obviously, they’re full of sick people and much that is painful takes place in them. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? Hospitals are harsh places. The lighting is harsh. The bureaucracy is confusing. The furniture is uncomfortable. There are often few windows. They are not beautiful places. They are certainly not welcoming.

A Healing Place (Current Affairs)

It appears that hatred of modern and contemporary architecture is the only thing that the left and the right can agree on.

So we architects have accomplished something, it seems.

***

We separate church and state, as John Michael Greer has pointed out numerous times, not to protect the state, but to protect religion. In the same way, a separation between the government and architecture should be observed to protect architecture. Sure, the profession has stumbled. But the answer is not top-down control, or the establishment of a singular “official style” determined by the government. Nor does the answer necessarily have to be backward-looking classicism, or any historical style.

The answer should be rediscovering the timeless values of design. That’s not the exclusive property of any single style. And while it may make sense to have stylistic restrictions in a city like Paris, imposing them over the whole of the United States, with all its diversity, is foolhardy. It will mire the United States endlessly in nostalgia, forever trying to invoke its past glories while it deteriorates in real time.

Critics speak out over the draft federal architecture mandate (The Architects Newspaper)

Now, I have no problem with classical architecture. But I do have a problem with the government telling us how to build. I am against the politicization of architecture. This is America. It goes against our values. As Moynihan’s statement aptly put it, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.” Whatever the failings of contemporary architecture—and, as I have noted, there are many—this principle should be maintained. I am 100% with the AIA on this.

And, I must note, it’s amusing to see all the “anti-statist” Libertarians suddenly embracing this. Apparently, top-down imposition from the Federal government is okay as long as it is in cultural matters and not economic ones. If government dictates something that they agree with, suddenly Libertarians reveal themselves as closet statists.

Finally, to condemn all contemporary architecture with such a broad brush is the provenance of absolutist thinking. Look, we’ve moved beyond Brutalism. We don’t worship at the altar of the International Style anymore—contemporary modern architecture embraces location and context . It learns from the past. A lot of contemporary modernism has incorporated principles of form, space order, and proportion once again, along with comfortably incorporating  modern building materials and techniques. It’s just not noticed as often by the general public. Just like we notice car wrecks and shocking news stories, we are hard-wired to pay disproportionate attention to ugly buildings, and ignore all the instances of good ones. For example, Santiago Calatrava’s art museum has become one of the most beloved spaces in my city, drawing tourists from all over the world. Bare-bones budgets and a penny-pinching mentality are far bigger threats to architectural beauty than architects are; something we often fail to properly acknowledge.

There must be some sort of middle ground that allows us to point out the failings of modern architecture without embracing some kind of nostalgic European ethno-nationalism. Some sort of middle-ground between dismissing all our critics as unqualified philistines, and believing that Modernism is a vast Marxist conspiracy to exterminate an imaginary Christian West.

But in these extreme times, I doubt it.

BONUS:

For some enjoyment of actual classical architecture, check these out:

This is a reconstruction of ancient Rome that was done in a software called Lumion. I became aware of this program while looking for a good rendering engine:

See ancient Rome brought to life through SketchUp and Lumion

And:

For 13 years, this photographer has been building an incredible 3D digital model of Athens (BoingBoing)

One thought on “Making Architecture Work Again

  1. Christopher Alexander’s diagnosis is that the architecture we have depends on the process by which it’s made. Sick architecture is a symptom of a broken process. Architecture which is driven by a requirement sheet and divorced from the processes of construction and living will always be broken, no matter what surface finish is prescribed by government.

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