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Donald Trump as Architecture’s Nightmare Client

Not since Thomas Jefferson has there been a presidential candidate more involved in designing and building structures than Donald J. Trump. He has commissioned scores of architects to design millions of square feet in hundreds of locations. You would think that would make him the favorite of our profession: a building insider running the country? How could that be bad for architects?

Well, we kinda know this guy.

This is a bizarre election season in America: collectively we dislike both major candidates. One is a narcissistic caricature of himself, the other has had her “issues” for decades. Forget about political issues, this is identity politics at its most personalized. Few find warm and fuzzies with either.

But architects know one of these personalities: many of us work with them every day. Trump’s reputation is similar to that of other big developers. They provide high-profile work, fraught with confrontations and compromises. It’s not unusual for this kind of work, but the scale and prominence of Trump makes his projects a special nightmare.

All architects of a certain age know the classic bluster-based client: who knows just enough to think he or she knows all there is to know, who is ever suspicious of being ripped off, who dismisses all input that was not already in his or her head.

What does this reality have to do with Trump as a candidate, let alone president? The character of a superego-ed client is revealed as you go through any building process. I had one client who when confronted with a crystal clear alternative to a terminally flawed plan rejected it, simply because the idea was not hers. This same mental basis of retroactive rationalization means our bills are often magically recalculated to be “correct” as well.

Rejection of facts over ego gratification can cause a few problems on a job: whether building or being the President of the United States. Architects should, in theory, be sympathetic to Trump’s historic use of our profession to brand him and his enterprises. But he’s well known to us as the developer client, and the baggage of that label is undeniable.

As is almost to be expected, given the natures of both the candidate and architecture, an architect is now being used to attack Trump. Andrew Tesoro designed Trump National Golf Course’s clubhouse in Westchester and was nearly bankrupted by the experience. While many architects have had the same experience with crooked clients (and were a little surprised at Tesoro’s surprise), clearly the character of Developer Trump was a ripe target for Clinton operatives.

The willingness to work for known fee-chiselers like Trump is a constant drain on the value of architecture. The exchange for that value void is the fame and recognition architects treat as the pay. “Mr. Tesoro is a fine architect with imagination and spirit,” reads the Club’s brochure. “The Clubhouse fits perfectly on its glorious hilltop site…rooms are beautifully proportioned, light-filled spaces…Andrew Tesoro is a dedicated, enthusiastic, talented, and solid professional… a top-notch architect. – Donald J. Trump”

Trump is a stereotype that architects recoil from (and yet occasionally earn a living through). The reason we work for them may be simple narcissism. Many of us are not-so-different from the Trumps of the world. Like a lot of self-directed leaders, the mirror should not just be a vanity vehicle—a good long look may reveal some deeper truths architects tend to shy away from.

The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark was a hero for many of us in youth and the inspiration, along with his progenitor, Frank Lloyd Wright, for a mythic view of architecture as culturally transformative. How different is fictional architect Roark from real-life vulgarian Trump? If they ever worked together, they surely would have had a screaming match or two, maybe a building or two, and much fawning praise for each other.

The splits in our country have divided us into camps of self-justification: a place cultivated by Trump and Roark. America’s current political Balkanization has become a stand in for policy: human animosity, not ideas; oppositional rejectionism versus dealing with problems. The hatred and spew and debate from one camp to the other is sometimes righteous, but uses the base coarse irrationalities of a late night bar argument, instantly going to the place Trump campaigns from.

In hard-knock development, the most aggressive competitor gets the best sites, the best prices from his builders, and usually views architects as either a necessary cost overrun or as a marketing expense. Trump is just as he portrays himself, for good or ill. He is the unrepentant 70-year-old who knows what he knows and cannot be wrong if it’s from his thinking.

Agreement with the Donald is being right, anything else puts you in the other side of him—wrong and disqualified; not a great place for an architect if he’s your client and radically divisive even in a time of extreme political discord in America.

But architecture has its own Balkanization due to caricaturing cliche. The orthodoxies of style canon are equally absurd in their defensive self-justification. Modernist dismissal of any allusion to anything but other Modernist architecture is laughably tone deaf. The fearful outrage of a reactionary traditionalist minority is equally dismissive and judgmental.

So it’s not nuts to find the allusion between architecture and politics valid and informing, because both are uniquely human endeavors. Our tiny profession needs to find a reality check wherever it can find one. Our sustained lack of growth and relevance is not just due to a dead-end economy, but to the same attitudinal deafness that makes Trump so repulsive to so many.

When you vote against something, it’s a gloomy admission that there is nothing to vote for. Whether in politics or architecture, if your central focus is a power play for control of a situation by any means necessary, it leaves everyone else at a loss for connection to you.

In the novel, Roark ghost designs a large development, Cortlandt. Prior to blowing up the buildings of his design because they were constructed to include hack architect Peter Keating’s modifications, Roark declares, “I designed Cortlandt. I gave it to you. I destroyed it.” He believed the project was his to give and thus his to destroy, even though he paid not a penny for the land, materials or services to make them a reality.

I can envision Trump saying the same thing after Ukraine is left smoldering. Decisiveness in making buildings or policy is often a good thing. But mindless belief in your own infallibility makes for some terrible buildings and potentially calamitous foreign policy. One is an ugly waste of money and resources; the other often gets thousands of people killed.

Which is why politicians are even less respected than architects.

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