Wednesday, February 12, 2020

‘White House said to be drafting architecture executive order’

Courtesy Khan Academy

By Operative Masonry, we allude to a proper application of the useful rules of architecture, whence a structure will derive figure, strength, and beauty, and whence will result a due proportion and a just correspondence in all its parts. It furnishes us with dwellings and convenient shelter from the vicissitudes and inclemencies of seasons; and while it displays the effects of human wisdom, as well in the choice as in the arrangement of the sundry materials of which an edifice is composed, it demonstrates that a fund of science and industry is implanted in man, for the best, most salutary, and beneficent purposes.

Middle Chamber Lecture
Grand Lodge of New York

A flurry of media reports last week claim a presidential executive order is being drafted that would make neo-classical the sole style of architecture for most future federal government buildings.

The president of the United States is empowered by law to issue executive orders to govern operations of the Executive Branch of the federal government. Donald Trump has made three such orders in 2020, but that being discussed in the media is not among them.

Predictably, most media coverage is not only negative, but also near hysterical. The story broke February 4 in Architectural Record. The next day, ArtNet News reports:

In a new executive order that’s quickly drawing comparisons to fascist ideology, President Trump plans to re-integrate “our national values into Federal buildings.”

Titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” the order seeks to rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture to ensure that the “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new buildings, according to Architectural Record, which obtained a draft of the document.

The order denounces the quality of architecture since the Guiding Principles were first issued in 1962 by former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and cites Brutalism and Deconstructivism as examples. It specifically calls out the U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco, the U.S. Courthouse in Austin, and the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami in particular for having “little aesthetic appeal.”


J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, DC.

U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco.

Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami.

The New York Times, which would advocate for cancer if the Trump-appointed Surgeon General of the United States discovered its cure, offers this headline on its Art & Design Section last Friday:

on Architectural Diversity
Weaponizes Greek Columns

For God’s sake.

The Art Newspaper, quoting Pulitzer-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger, says:

Many policies that we’re seeing now seem to be about exclusion, and now it’s in the realm of architecture. It’s a terrible mistake and it’s inconsistent with an enlightened, liberal democracy. Perhaps it was a mistake to think that architecture would not come under this spotlight.

Conversely, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Myron Magnet, author and winner of the National Humanities Medal, explains:

Architectural classicism is a living language, not an antiquarian straitjacket. Its grammar of columns and capitals, pediments and proportions allows a wide range of expression. Just look at the original genius with which Michelangelo marshaled that language in his era or Christopher Wren in his. It’s a language that constantly updated itself in America’s federal city, from the handsome 1790s White House to John Russell Pope’s sublime 1940s Jefferson Memorial and National Gallery of Art. In the language of classicism, buildings relate civilly to each other, forming harmonious cities—Venice or pre-World War II London—in which the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts, however beautiful some may be. A bad classical building may be awkward or uninspired; it is never hideous. And all is based on human proportions and human scale.

Not so for the modernism that the proposed executive order discourages. Though modernism is an odd word for a style that’s now almost a century old, it began with an explicit European rejection of American architecture and a thoroughly 20th-century impulse toward central planning and state control. Modernism brought housing projects so bare and standardized that no worker wanted to live in them.

In City Journal, Catesby Leigh, past founding chair and fellow of the National Civic Art Society (which supports the executive order) writes:

One thing to be borne in mind at this politically charged juncture in our national life is that classicism is not an “ideology,” as some critics are charging. It is a formal language, with a vocabulary and syntax—originating with the classical column and its superstructure—geared to the idealization of structure in anthropomorphic terms. In other words, the classical language makes its appeal to us as embodied beings. It has shown itself supremely adaptable to changing social and technological conditions, and thoroughly receptive to regional inflections. Classicism is not, and never has been, a closed system. And it should come as no surprise that it has been used (and abused) by political regimes from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other.

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