The defenders of modernist architecture lost no time in assaulting the recent Trump administration proposal that government buildings be classical. Architecture critics and the heads of architecture schools are among those who seek to preserve the putative right of architects to express their interpretation of the modern era with the latest fashions on public land and at public expense.
They argue that government interference would curtail their right to practice their art. If people do not like what they see, well, too bad for them. This argument ignores the fact that a building is a public object that occupies a site that is necessarily part of the realm where people lead their lives.
Things placed in the public realm are obliged to serve the public, common good even if privately owned, and it is the duty of government to ensure this is done. Presently, land is to be used for its “highest and best use,” which is defined by the greatest economic return or, in the case of cultural institutions, for the education of the taste of the people. The result has been a half-century of commercial construction and one-off cultural centers that display the avant-garde styles that the 1962 guidelines encouraged for public buildings as well.
Classical Architecture Serves the Public Good
Modernism gained ascendancy at the expense of classical architecture that uses valued traditions adapted with innovations, drawing on experience and new insights to fit current circumstances. This role of tradition and innovation in architecture has its counterpart in our form of government, which has its roots in ancient Greece and Rome and in the experience of governing British colonies.
The architects’ objection fails to acknowledge that the primary purpose of a public building is to serve a public, common good. The purposes of exercising that authority have varied as forms of government have changed across the two and a half millennia of the classical tradition, but the canons of beauty that prevail in classical architecture have guided the changes in the buildings that have served those governments. Those who resist having the government return to using classical architecture for major public buildings identify these variations as the changing styles of classicism and claim that none of those styles is suited for the modern world.
The general culture has absorbed the lesson that the classical style expresses the tastes of an era in which buildings were produced by contemporary influences through the hands of great architects or humble builders. Now those who translate the modern era’s influences into trend-setting buildings are the starchitects of the avant-garde.
We see this at the heart of the official objection of the Society of Architectural Historians. It accepts the 1962 guidelines’ goal of having a new public building attain a “stylistic outcome” through “architectural excellence based on the best architectural thinking and technology available,” but this implicitly excludes the classical architecture that has done pretty well at producing beautiful buildings serving public purposes for as long as the word “architecture” has existed.
Look Around to See the Beauty of the Classical Style
Classicism is not a style but an achievement of architectural art that renders a public service while honoring the canons of beauty as they pertain to that art. A common misunderstanding has Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin forever tainting the classical style, but note that they used the classical to mask their evil, vile intentions.
The classical in service to the public, common good of our nation, however, has been manifested in buildings from those of Thomas Jefferson to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is also apparent in the choics of President George Washington and Pierre Charles L’Enfant when building the national capital, and in the architects of the first half of the previous century who added the Federal Triangle, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Union Station, and the National Mall. Need I add the countless state capitols, city halls, courthouses, and other public buildings serving and representing our ideals all across the nation?
The classical style is evident in various other objections. One dismisses Jefferson’s Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, as simply being in the style of the time. Another says the National Gallery of Art is based on the Pantheon in Rome rather than recognizing that John Russell Pope’s building is a modern distillation of the U.S. Capitol, adapted to its service and its place in the nation’s capital. At the same time, that critic praises I.M. Pei’s East Wing, although it is an example of modernist minimalism that at least is a minimal intrusion.
The 1962 guidelines mandated, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa,” but praise for what the profession has produced is scarce. Consider the colony of federal agency buildings across the National Mall. Their saving grace is that their height and siting is acceptable, but those qualities were determined by century-old safeguards.
While modernist architects would fare poorly in satisfying the proposed guidelines, a growing number of architects is recovering the ability to produce classical architecture. They offer the possibility of restoring the beauty of public buildings to gain the people’s respect for the work those buildings do in contributing to the public, common good. We need these revisions to achieve this.