federal courthouse tuscaloosa

Let’s Talk About Federal Patronage and Classical Architecture

Nothing would please me more than to see a rebirth of classical architecture led by federal government patronage. For more than four decades I have studied, designed, written about, and taught classical design. In my view, “classical” is not a style or an ideology, but a culture of building that leads to beautiful structures and cities. It has proved to be the most articulate expression of humanist and democratic aspirations for most of the last two and a half millennia and has historically been a central component of our national cultural life and identity as Americans.

For the past half-century or more, architects pursuing classical design have been in the minority and have met relentless opposition from the professional and academic establishment. Classical practitioners are excluded from faculty positions at leading schools, denied important commissions, and shut out of the most widely read publications. The federal government has recently sponsored over-scaled and inappropriate new structures like the federal building in San Francisco by Morphosis Architects. An exception, the federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa by HBRA Architects, was resisted by the U.S. General Services Administration (which commissions and manages federal buildings) and denounced by the establishment critics. Meanwhile, the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, the Institute for Classical Architecture & Art, Traditional Building magazine, the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), and other organizations have made progress educating designers and the public in the beauties of classical design.

News that the federal government might reverse its decades-old promotion of modernist architecture and return to classical roots for its own projects is cause for celebration. In a civil and tolerant society, a public discussion of what kind of architecture might best reflect our national values while respecting local contexts would ensue. But in the America of today, the suggestion that classical architecture become the “preferred style” for new federal projects has elicited a storm of protest from the establishment and turned what should be a nonpartisan issue into a weapon of cultural and political warfare. Among the more unhinged was this screed posted on the New Republic website. 

As I understand it, Justin Shubow, president of the NCAS, together with others in the organization, secretly prepared drafts of an Executive Order about federal architecture which they submitted to sympathetic staffers at the White House. A draft was subsequently leaked to Architectural Record, which reported about it on February 4. While different versions of the document have circulated online, they all seek to replace the 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture and call for classical approaches for government projects in Washington, D.C., and a range of traditional styles elsewhere. They call for establishment of a President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture. (The committee would be limited to federal employees and would last for one year.) On the whole, I find most of the document unexceptional, though there is ambiguity about whether classical design is “preferred” or “required,” and where. Unfortunately, the furor following the leak has made informed discussion of the merits difficult.

My problem is not with the document but the strategy. There was little or no consultation with those most directly affected: classical architects. A dozen or so well-known practitioners and academics I reached out to about this issue had not been contacted. Even some members of the NCAS board were not aware of the initiative. Like children playing with matches, the drafters seem to have been unaware of the risks and unprepared for the reaction. While I believe them when they say their intention was to spark a conversation, they unwittingly ignited a firestorm. 

The establishment’s response was fierce and irrational, but also entirely predictable. Outrage poured from the American Institute of Architects, the Society of Architectural Historians, architectural critics (such as John King), and the professional press. How dare the government limit freedom of expression by mandating a style? With the initiative now linked to a divisive president who had just been impeached for abuse of power, opponents of the initiative denounced classical architecture as reactionary and authoritarian. They invoked all the old clichés: Classical architecture is the language of slavery and fascism. It is fake. It is a denial of freedom and creativity. It is simply copying. This is all nonsense, of course, but the arguments of defenders of the classical were hard to hear against the modernist noise. An op-ed by Michael Lykoudis, dean of the Notre Dame School of Architecture (where I am a professor), in the Washington Post was a rare exception. 

Proponents of classical architecture of my acquaintance—most of whom, like myself, are political liberals—are accustomed to being criticized for their taste in architecture, but now they find themselves denounced as Trump supporters. Several of them hastened to declare their disagreement with any government move to mandate a style, pointing out that it made little sense to replace one hegemony with another. They were appalled that decades of hard work in education and advocacy might now be buried under an avalanche of modernist over-reaction, and they decried the political tone-deafness of the NCAS in provoking this surge of opposition. 

How might this have been handled differently? The United Kingdom offers a useful model. Just last month, the British government-sponsored Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission published a report, Living with Beauty: Promoting health, well-being, and sustainable growth. The product of a transparent and public consultative process, the commission (of which the late philosopher and defender of classical architecture Sir Roger Scruton was co-chair) identified beauty as crucial to environmental stewardship and citizen well-being: 

 “It is not often that a government adopts beauty as a policy objective. But such is the remit of this Commission, and we fully endorse the thinking that has led to it. […] What people want is buildings that reflect the history, character and identity of their community and that belong in their surroundings….” (pp. 9, 22) 

The report encourages new traditional architecture without defining a required style. Its 45 specific recommendations concern environmental stewardship and health, durability and resiliency of construction, adaptability and affordability, democratic process, and—above all—respect for the character of distinctive places. Illustrations include both “traditional” and quietly “modern” buildings, and while largely concerned with planning and housing policy rather than individual structures, the report recognizes that “New public sector buildings should be popular and beautiful sources of civic pride.” This intention can apply to everything from modest public housing to the most monumental structures. The report also calls for more education of the public on design issues, but also better training of architects and planners, who too often have little or no grounding in architectural history or the cultural life of the communities in which they build. Most important, it outlines a consultative process for vetting projects involving all stakeholders and ensuring respect for user and local community values.

The document received input from institutions, academic and professional societies, advocacy groups, and local communities. This broad-based process has not sheltered the report from fierce criticism by modernist architects and planners (much of it focused on Sir Roger, who was the subject of a vicious and mendacious campaign), but it has grounded its findings in objective study and broad support where it counts. 

That’s not how things played out on this side of the Atlantic. So what should American supporters of classical architecture do now? We can turn this crisis into a teaching opportunity. We can ask the NCAS and the White House to hold off on any further official moves pending a more comprehensive conversation. As a public service, NCAS and other classical organizations could convene a conference in which representatives of the profession, academy, government, user groups, and industry review federal procurement processes for architectural services and, with the report of the British commission on beauty as a model, recommend criteria for vetting new federal projects, especially those of public importance. They can propose a permanent commission to advise the government on architectural design issues, setting an example for a more consultative process at the local level. (A government commission like that recommended in the draft Executive Order would be limited to federal employees, but a special advisory committee would not.) They can pass their findings to sympathetic staffers in the White House for further consideration and presidential signature—whoever the president might be at that time. 

Whatever happens, we must resist the appropriation of classical architecture as a political weapon. The classical tradition is neither liberal nor conservative, or rather it is both. Beautiful buildings of any style inspire both Democrats and Republicans, and ugly buildings afflict both sides of the political divide equally. Most important, a new consensus on design quality must arise from a consultative and collaborative process among those most involved and affected by these issues. On the plus side, architecture is now a subject of public interest and debate for the first time in decades. Let’s seize the opportunity to get this right.


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to CommonEdge.org, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.