Classical architecture is not a partisan issue.
President Thomas Jefferson, founder of the Democratic Party, was an enthusiastic champion of the Greek Revivalism thankfully still visible in both the capital and his Monticello home. When he designed the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, he took great care in the landscaping and architecture, knowing their likely effects on generations of young minds.
Fifty years later, President Abraham Lincoln insisted that construction of the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol continue despite the bloody and costly war taking place sometimes just 50 miles from the seat of government. Public beauty in civic buildings, he believed, was crucial to the future of the Union.
Democrat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drew inspiration from the great Republican of the Civil War, championing the classical and moving ahead with Washington construction as he sought to prepare the country for the world war he saw descending on our fragile peace.
Democrat Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan played an interesting role in Washington’s architectural history, both helping to craft the 1962 General Guidelines that undid more than 50 years of ordered-classical government buildings, then later criticizing the modernism that took its place.
“Twentieth Century America,” he lamented in 1970, “has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of its public order.”
The preference for the classical is not simply confined to politicians but is immensely popular with the public that lives among these buildings and sees them in either their daily business or on trips to their cities. A survey conducted by The Harris Poll and commissioned by the classicist National Civic Art Society found that, when presented with a picture of a modernist courthouse and a classical one, members of the public preferred the classical design by nearly 3:1, regardless of age, sex, or race.
But in academia and among elite art and architecture circles, the preferences of the American people and its leaders past and present are passe at best, and fascist at worst. On Monday, President Joe Biden broke with a century of precedent by demanding the resignations of four members of the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, including Chas Fagan, Steven Spandle, Perry Guillot, and Commission Chairman Justin Shubow. His reason? He doesn’t like the classic aesthetic.
“The counsel’s office,” Bloomberg reports, “advised that President Joe Biden has the authority to remove the commissioners, whose staunch support for classical architecture does not align with his values.”
Fagan is a renowned sculptor and painter whose statue of former President Ronald Reagan stands in the Capitol Rotunda, whose statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks stands in the National Cathedral, and whose paintings include the Vatican’s official portrait of St. Mother Theresa and first lady Barbara Bush’s official portrait.
Shubow serves as the president of the National Civic Art Society, a non-profit organization that fights for classicism in public works, and is at the forefront of the battle to rebuild Manhattan’s destroyed Penn Station. Guillot’s works include the new White House Rose Garden and Children’s Garden, and Spandle’s work includes the White House’s beautiful new Tennis Pavilion.
The four men come from different backgrounds and disciplines, but all appear to have been targeted for removal to create a more “diverse” and less classically oriented commission, despite Guillot not considering himself a classicist and Shubow being the first Jewish chairman in the history of the commission.
Their replacements include urban planner and Howard University architecture professor Hazel Ruth Edwards, Andrew Mellon Foundation program officer Justin Garrett Moore, architect Billie Tsien, whose firm is responsible for the Obama Presidential Library design, and Peter D. Cook, whose designs include the Smithsonian’s sandcrawler-esque National Museum of African American History and a pavilion seemingly inspired by the Star Trek badge.
The purge, The Washington Post reports, followed a complaint from the deputy mayor of D.C., who told the Biden White House that because of the commission’s power to approve the city’s development, its members “could impede Washington’s progress toward racial and economic equity, climate change and affordable housing.”
All four replacement commissioners are modernists, none identify as white males, and three — Ruth Edwards, Garrett Moore and Tsien — are outspoken allies of the administration’s focus on race (and racism) in everything and above all else. “Biden,” the Post’s chosen search-engine headline reads, “removes four white men from Commission of Fine Arts.”
Since the end of World War II, modernists from the elite academies have made steady progress in the United States and across the West. In the 1930s, when architect John Russell Pope was tasked with designing both the West Wing of the Smithsonian’s National Gallery and the Jefferson Memorial across Washington’s Tidal Basin, he saw more opportunity for beauty in reinterpreting the ancient than in embracing the novel, choosing to draw heavy inspiration for both the memorial and the center of the museum from the world-renowned Roman Pantheon.
“Both [the West Building and the memorial] were conceived as temples,” the Society of Architecture Historians write: “one dedicated to a man of true republican principles and one a sanctuary to house refined and valuable artworks.”
The West Building — today regarded as one of the capital’s most beautiful — was, however, heaped with scorn from the elite critics of its day. When it was dedicated in 1941, Joseph Hudnut, the extremely influential dean of the Harvard School of Architecture, called the museum a “pink marble whorehouse,” predicting that “surely the time cannot be far distant when we shall understand how inadequate is the death-mask of an ancient culture to express the soul of America.”
Roosevelt, hardly an outsider to elite circles, disagreed, saying at the building’s dedication:
Seventy-eight years ago, in the third year of the war between the states, men and women gathered here in the capital of a divided nation, here in Washington, to see the dome above the Capitol completed and to see the bronze Goddess of Liberty set upon the top. It had been an expensive and laborious business, diverting money and labor from the prosecution of the war, and certain critics — for there were critics in 1863 — certain critics found much to criticize. There were new marble pillars in the Senate wing of the Capitol; there was a bronze door for the central portal and other such expenditures and embellishments. But the president of the United States, whose name was Lincoln, when he heard those criticisms, answered: ‘If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign that we intend this Union shall go on.’
Although today Hudnut is all but forgotten, his influence lives on through the works of the foreign Bauhaus architects he brought to Harvard, whose work in styles such as Brutalism scar landscapes from Atlanta to Washington to Minnesota. Hudnut saw their European cement, it seems, as more suited “to express the soul of America.”
When the East Wing of the National Gallery was built in the 1960s and ’70s (after the General Guidelines for federal architecture has been revamped) modernist I. M. Pei, whose firm was later sued over allegations of shoddy design over the falling-windows mess at Boston’s John Hancock Tower, was chosen for the project. Completed in 1978, its novel design required an $85 million fix to prevent the giant, faceless slabs of suspended concrete on the exterior walls from crashing down.
The East Wing is, former Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey told The New York Times, is “an example of why we need contemporary thought in architecture.” “It’s what makes contemplating and experiencing cities enjoyable.”
While not a partisan issue, beautiful architecture is important to the American people — and is a subject on which our preferences are clear. Having lost the argument, however, certain allies of the modernist elites in the Biden White House have taken it upon themselves to push an unprecedented coup on the Commission on Fine Arts.
It’s a naked power grab, nothing more and nothing else. And while it bodes poorly for the near future of American civic architecture, it is a move made from weakness: Just as their works fail to uplift or inspire, their grasping will fail to persuade.