Classicism Has Been Shaken Off Its Foundation
Donald Trump never met a metaphor he couldn’t enjoy. On January 6, 2021, the president of the United States induced a mob to storm the nation’s seat of government and overturn an election. Hundreds of loyalists invaded the U.S. Capitol carrying brickbats, bombs, and banners. Someone made a victory loop through debris-strewn congressional corridors holding a Confederate battle flag. The message—Congress, a symbol of liberty, has fallen to an icon of slavery—seemed to broadcast that America had been made great again. No, not that America; the Confederate States of America.
In the U.S., the optics were different and foreboding. What other signs of liberty would fall if Trump’s putsch succeeded? Moshe Dyan once called freedom “the oxygen of the soul.” Would the president cut off freedom’s air supply by censoring mainstream news during his second term? Would President-Elect Biden be arrested? Trump was smiling through the riot, but not saying much. The coup lasted four hours and failed to unseat the government. The man holding the Confederate flag left the building, but his implied message remained.
Metaphors are cognitive tools for turning abstract concepts into palpable realities. Speakers and writers have used them since the dawn of language to communicate complex things by referencing simple things. Shakespeare was a master. The line “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” tells an audience in one sentence more about Romeo than the author’s entire “What light from yonder window breaks” soliloquy. Candlelight from Juliet’s room is to Romeo what the sun is to life. In other words, Romeo cannot live without Juliet. The metaphor not only describes his feelings, it foreshadows what’s to come.
Authoritarians know the power of association wielded by analogies as well as writers. A few weeks before the Capitol assault, Trump ordered U.S. federal buildings to toss contemporary architecture out the window. His “Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” likened Modernism to socialism—which has a ring of truth. The Modern movement began with visions of a social utopia. Since the 1950s, however, contemporary buildings have been more corporate than egalitarian, more plutocracy than democracy, more Republican than Democrat. Nevertheless, by presidential fiat, Brutalism and Desconstructivism architecture are liberal, ugly, entartete kunst. Greco-Roman, Gothic, Romanesque, Pueblo Revival, and Spanish Colonial henceforth officially represent conservatism and beauty—in other words, America the Great.
Analogies are potent. “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle said in Poetics, which I learned firsthand in architecture school. I’d been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum up to my second year, having visited the building often while growing up around New York City. One day, just before a history class, I read art critic John Canady’s description of the building as “a war between architecture and painting in which both come out badly maimed.” The Guggenheim wasn’t shooting at anyone or anything, yet the point was made: Wright’s museum was better sculpture than exhibition space. No two-hour lecture was needed to get the idea across; a single sentence did the trick. I immediately changed my mind about the building and skipped class.
Another example: Did you notice my sentence casually referencing Hitler’s 1937 declaration that modern art and architecture were entartete kunst (“degenerate art”)? The führer called Abstractionism incompatible with German values. Sound similar to Trump’s executive order against Modernism? If A is to B as C is to B, then A must equal C, right? No. My linkage was a sleight of hand, guilt by association, you might call it, an attempt to foment failed critical thinking.
Donald Trump is a developer of Modernist buildings getting even for God knows what. Hitler was consistent in his artistic beliefs. Trump is contradicting himself by banning his own taste.
Metaphors can be used to state truths or to issue lies. An association fallacy suggests two things that share the same properties are the same thing. In fact, the president and the chancellor are not duplicates. One man purposely orchestrated the death of millions; the other let hundreds of thousands die from neglect. Murder and involuntary manslaughter are not identical. Look deeper, and you’ll find the leaders’ mutual declarations to mandate classical architecture diverge also in intent. Hitler was a Realist painter seeking revenge for being rejected by Modernist-loving art and architecture schools. Donald Trump is a developer of Modernist buildings getting even for God knows what. Hitler was consistent in his artistic beliefs. Trump is contradicting himself by banning his own taste.
Although my comparison of the two men isn’t reliable, Classicism-leaning readers might emotionally come away with an enhanced opinion of Modernism. Such is the power of a metaphor to shape ideas. “All perception of truth,” Thoreau wrote, “is the perception of an analogy.” Science backs him up: social psychology’s Conceptual Metaphor Theory posits that humans think in metaphors.
Putting aside the executive order’s unstated-but-obvious power play—cozying up to the right wing, flipping a bird to the left—banishing modernist governmental buildings should not be fully dismissed. Yes, Trump’s “Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” was meant to piss off his opponents. But no, there is nothing inherently wrong with insisting that federal buildings demonstrate “beauty.” And mandating the “visual embodiment of America’s ideals” is in line with the well-respected 1994 General Services Administration requirement that federal buildings “provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.” The questions are: Whose definition of beauty reigns? And how do we architecturally embody this nation’s values?
Classicists insist that Greco-Roman proportions, scale, and decoration mimic biophilia, thereby triggering the positive emotions associated with seeing something beautiful. Indeed, humans are drawn to depictions of nature. However, neuro-architectural research is an emerging field with incomplete data and inconclusive results. Certain images do elicit predictable responses, but understanding and applying the effect is better accomplished through psychology than physiology. Let the neuroscientists keep looking under the hood; behavior scientists should drive the car. It’s more important to know what happens when you step on the gas than how the engine works. In any case, Classism has no lock on symmetry, scale, or patterns. And modern architecture is no foreigner to biophilic design.
The remaining question, how federal architecture could or should transmit American ideals, is the critical one. Thomas Jefferson thought old-world architecture could symbolize new-world democracy. Unfortunately, history had other plans. One person’s Greek temple of liberty became another’s sign of authoritarian rule. Depending on perspective, Doric columns mean either hearth and home or antebellum slaveowner residence. For the last hundred years, contrasting interpretations were obscured by Classicism living in Modernism’s shadow. Trump’s polarizing politics has now forced the issue into the open. While the president didn’t create the style schism, his spotlight revealed that racists commandeered Classical architecture years ago. Nationalists own the logo today. Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite columns are brandished as pillars of white supremacy.
It’s hard to gauge mindshare, though. A recent survey conducted by the National Civic Art Society shows that if federal building styles were a popularity contest, Classicism would win bigly. Greco-Roman motifs are preferred over Modernist styles three to one. But how this translates into other building types isn’t clear. In what one lives might be a better measure of general attitudes. In a survey by Homes.com, 85% of respondents preferred Bohemian Craftsman, Modern Farmhouse, Tudor, Spanish Colonial/Southwest, Italianate, and French Chateau to American Mid-Century Modern. This seems to dovetail with America’s high-end gated communities, which are largely filled with Classical-like and cartoonish McMansions.
Realtor.com’s review of more modest neighborhoods, however, shows that Modernism is favored. Contemporary designs became the prevalent architecture when Colonial and other knockoffs petered out in the late 1980s.
Combining the president’s executive order with housing data, a cynical interpretation would be that wealthy Americans prefer a white supremacist form of government, but not the middle class. I’d say the take-home is that people like what they know. One’s happy place doesn’t necessarily come with a partisan undertone (unless it is imposed).
As architects discuss the aesthetic judgments thrust upon them by politics, the issue of style-as-metaphorical warrants scrutiny. The pre-2016 design world is gone. Joe Biden can cancel Trump’s executive orders, but his pen cannot strike out the divisiveness of Trump’s tenure and tenor. The U.S. Capitol isn’t the first iconic building to fall victim to a riot, nor will it be the last. Kent State University students burned their ROTC barracks during the 1970 demonstration that led to four dead in Ohio. Mobs tried to burn down Notre-dame de Paris during the French Revolution. History, unfortunately, provides numerous examples of violence centered on politicized architecture.
So here we are, with Classicism and Modernism assigned sides, one style co-opted by populism and colored red, the other vilified as Communist blue. Both architectures may have been so stripped of legitimacy and authenticity that they’re beyond redemption. To quote Walter Mondale, “Political image is like mixing cement. When it’s wet, you can move it around and shape it, but at some point, it hardens, and there’s almost nothing you can do to reshape it.” If Americans continue looking backward for their future, which way do architects go? Just as important, how do they get there?
I suspect Trump’s “Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” will be rescinded (as will his “Executive Order on Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes”), allowing most architects to return to creating Modernist embassies, courthouses, and the like. A minority will continue focusing on classical and traditional styles, while others will split the difference. In the meantime, politics will continue eating away at both isms, leaving the profession no better tomorrow than it is today.
Permit me, then, to propose other styles to emulate for federal and every other building type, better lodestars to follow, more robust models to consider.
Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center evokes a bird about to take flight. It’s a perfect simile for an airport terminal, easily read and understood, and widely appreciated by the public. The shells of the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon recall the sails of tall ships that once plied the building’s harbor to bring settlers and their music to the Land Down Under. Fariborz Sahba’s Baha’i Lotus Temple is shaped like its namesake flower. Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel is recognized as a nun’s hat. The public cherishes these overtly metaphorical buildings.
Metaphoric architecture (left to right): TWA Flight Center, Sidney Opera House, Ronchamp Cathedral
Another architectural style that charms through analogy begins with the words “Toleration and liberty.” Frank Lloyd Wright called them “the foundations of a great republic.” I can think of no better sentiment to express in federal buildings. Wright felt that “Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization.” Thumbs up to that. To his “Maybe we can show government how to operate better as a result of better architecture,” I give him two thumbs and a heart emoji. Our nation’s only major indigenous architectural style is Wright’s Prairie School. I propose that it is a better premise to build upon than German werkbunds or Egyptian columns making their way from Greece to Rome to the École des Beaux-Arts to Richmond, Virginia.
Where have you gone, Taliesin West, after 80 years teaching a shrinking pool of faithful? Frank and his architecture school have gone away, but Wright’s Usonian tenets remain. Within overhanging eaves and horizontal lines, buildings of the earth not on it are opportunities for an American architecture devoid of classical orders and all-glass, brutal, or deconstructed boxes.
Architecture is in desperate need of a style that honestly communicates its intent, buildings that speak for themselves rather than have words put in their mouths. Metaphorical architecture, buildings composed of evocative forms and meaningfully symbolic decoration, offer a way forward.
Recent events have shaken Classicism off its foundation. Modernism has been crumbling for decades. A Biden executive order banning both styles might do the world a world of good. Edward Abbey, an author whose writing helped spawn the environmentalist movement, once wrote, “Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up every once in a while, a layer of scum floats to the top.”
What a great metaphor for architecture.
All images by the author.