Style has neither an inherent morality nor an inherent political agenda. This may seem obvious to a casual architectural observer, but in the midst of our toxic political environment, anything can become fuel for an ideological fire. Recently, the conspiracy theory site InfoWars released a propaganda-style video entitled “Why Modern Architecture Sucks” that attempted to link specific architectural styles to particular political agendas: modernism as an extension of totalitarian urban elitism (liberals), assaulting the traditional architecture of the silent majority (conservatives).
Although this video raises the volume and vulgarity of the discourse, the intimation that political persuasions can be gleaned by building style isn’t novel, but it is problematic, dangerous, and difficult to defend. No architectural language has been immune from attempted political co-opting, both benevolent and malevolent.
During a summer internship while I was in architecture school, a co-worker encouraged me to hang up some of my watercolor plates from the previous semester above my desk. One of the firm’s partners asked me why they were still encouraging us to practice that “fascist classical architecture” at Notre Dame. Although he was (mostly) joking, a sentiment remains in the architecture world that classical architecture is forever tainted because of Hitler’s affinity for it. But dictators— fascist, communist, and otherwise—have used both modern and classical architecture to project their power. Think of Soviet brutalism or North Korea’s gargantuan glass and steel monuments. The buildings of dictators are not united by a common architectural language (if anything, it’s their massive scale—regardless of style—that diminutizes residents).
Modernism emerged from many factors in the early 20th century, but a significant piece was the desire to improve the squalid condition of housing that thousands of people in cities were suffering in. One can see this either as a misguided social engineering experiment by power-hungry men spell-bound by the allure of the machine age (malevolent totalitarians), or as an empathetic attempt to raise the quality of life for the most people possible (benevolent progressives). Both the intent, and the results, are a mixed bag. Classical architecture has a much longer history but is equally varied: Greek classical architecture was what physically built the first democracy, but plenty of “urban elites” throughout Western civilization have exercised a manner of oligarchy and oppression behind the vertical windows and stone entablatures of traditional buildings.
History rarely provides the neat and tidy answers we might like.
I wonder what we would rely on to determine the politics of a style anyway: The intent of the building’s patron or funding agency? (Perhaps InfoWars doesn’t recognize the irony that their champion, Donald Trump, built his empire with modernist urban architecture in New York, Las Vegas, and Chicago.) Or would it be the impacts and effects of some miscellaneous majority of the built products? Either approach seems dubious.
There is an important distinction to be made between “inherent politics” and “symbolism.” Architectural language does carry symbolic meaning, which critically affects our experiences of a place. As Charles Jencks reinforces, “architecture is a social art shot through with conventions, stereotypes, words and quotations, [and] architects intend to communicate specific meanings.” Spaces feel imposing or welcoming, grand or informal, introspective or exuberant, based on our cultural and conventional understanding of materials, scale, details, landscape, etc. In this way, buildings serve as vital artifacts in cultural transmission.
But symbolism is dynamic across times and cultural memory, and as our sources of information fracture into thousands of online news outlets and social media feeds, there is debate about the eroding power of common cultural symbolism. In her 2014 book, The Function of Style, architect Farshid Moussavi goes so far as to suggest that “the absence of shared understanding in contemporary society [makes it] not possible for built forms to convey meaning through signification.” I disagree that we’ve reached that level of subjectivity—a stone column still evokes solidity and human proportion—but the same building conventions can be used simultaneously by both good and bad actors; thus the intent of their association is critical, and certainly not pre-determined.
The impact of a building’s symbolism is equally important—just because the architect or owner claims intent doesn’t mean it comes off that way to users. Living on the 27th floor of a contemporary high-rise tower can feel isolating and dehumanizing, even if the floor-to-ceiling glass windows are intended to connect the inhabitants with the city. A much more useful (and honest) way to evaluate a building is via the experience of its users, not an a priori assumption based on its style.
Amanda Kolson Hurley in CityLab and Christopher Hawthorne in the LA Times have ably discussed some of the implications of the InfoWars rhetoric, but little has been said about the co-opting of a legitimate design approach (traditionalism) by an extremist political movement. Just as the video has unfairly cherry-picked specific images of decrepit modernist buildings, it cherry-picks specific arguments about new traditional architecture. Some of these arguments have merit, although I take issue with the vehemence towards all contemporary design. What is not valid is the video’s attempt to align these arguments with an extreme right-wing politic.
In many parts of the architecture world, there is an unspoken assumption that traditional building design equates to conservative political philosophy; if a building’s character is heavily informed by historic language and details, its designers must want to return to the past wholesale. And thus progressive aesthetics equate directly with progressive political policy, where novel, technology-based forms are the only forms that accurately reflect the novel, technology-based future ahead. This association has specious objective grounding.
If, in the spirit of Kahn, we say to brick,”What politics do you want, brick?” it does not answer back, “Making America Great Again!” Nor if we say the same to a curved metal panel does it answer, “Stronger Together.”
If, in the spirit of Kahn, we say to brick, “What politics do you want, brick?” it does not answer back, “Make America Great Again!” Nor if we say the same to a curved metal panel does it answer, “Stronger Together.” I know plenty of traditional (and modern and agnostic) architects with political views across the spectrum. Traditional design is about creating places that confidently step into the future using the continuity of a well-honed, human-scale, architectural language with a meaningful narrative that connects to its inhabitants. The work of groups like the Congress for New Urbanism is steadfastly focused on a more vibrant, equitable, inclusive future. When traditional architects encourage region-specific building, it is not a xenophobic or protectionist rejection of outside people or ideas (or of the connected world that ‘globalization’ invites us into). It is a rejection of materials that are out of touch with the ecosystem, a rejection of aesthetic blandness that erases differentiated (and often minority) cultures, and an invitation for new ideas to be creatively explored with a grounding in, and respect for, local context and character.
Architecture is an inherently political act: where (and how) buildings are placed shapes communities, and these communities shape people. But specific architectures do not belong to any one political party or cause. Resisting further unproductive division in our country means resisting the propagandists’ call to drag architectural style into their culture war; let’s not let the question, “In what style shall we build?” become “In what style shall we lobby?” Thriving and meaningful communities—both urban and rural—require buildings that employ a self-aware and sensitive symbolism with all of the public’s interest at heart.