Watching last Wednesday’s armed invasion of the U.S. Capitol, it occurred to me that the event casts a new light on the Executive Order “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civil Architecture,” signed by President Donald Trump on December 18. The idea that Trump is interested in defending traditional American art and values is now revealed as the sham that those of us who have observed Trump over the course of his career always knew it to be. Perhaps some in the president’s party saw themselves as culture warriors defending their heritage, but their ragtag followers, incited by the demagogue in the White House, sought to overthrow the vote of the American electorate. Attacking and occupying the Capitol was both tactically and symbolically powerful, and a terrifying culmination of a years-long process of political disintegration. The mob was not there to rescue our nation’s greatest classical monument from some alleged usurpation, but to interrupt and overturn the very processes of constitutional governance that the building was designed to house and represent. In the process, they also vandalized the Capitol, including historic furnishings and artworks. Worst of all, the attack resulted in the death of a policeman and injuries to numerous others, a clear indication of the mob’s desire for violence and harm.
Now we know what these Trump followers really think about classical architecture. For them, it is not a thing of beauty or an expression of human rights and liberty. For them, it is a symbol of power to be attacked and dishonored. Thankfully, their assault was foiled. Many Republicans were appalled at the breach of the Capitol, finding themselves alongside their Democratic colleagues evacuating the building or taking cover in the House and Senate chambers. The count of the Electoral College votes thus interrupted, perhaps they found a moment for reflection.
Those supporting the Executive Order—in particular, its sponsors in the National Civic Art Society—must accept responsibility for their gross miscalculation in thinking this authoritarian administration would be a suitable vehicle to promote classical architecture in the current cultural context.
Whether their alignment with the administration was purely opportunistic or impelled by agreement with its non-architectural policies, those supporting the Executive Order—in particular, its sponsors in the National Civic Art Society (NCAS)—must accept responsibility for their gross miscalculation in thinking this authoritarian administration would be a suitable vehicle to promote classical architecture in the current cultural context. In their poor judgment, they have set back the classical cause and destroyed the reputation of their organization. There were alternatives: I have written previously about how this worthy goal might have been pursued more effectively without inflaming the tribal sentiments that now engulf us. This would have demonstrated real leadership, something tragically missing at the NCAS. But now all of that has been eclipsed by the sight of officers, guns drawn, protecting the House chamber as an invader carried the Confederate flag through those hallowed halls.
Those of us who have worked for the last several decades to revive the classical tradition in public art and architecture have long been accused of sympathy for authoritarian regimes. We have heard over and over that classical architecture is tainted for all time by its association with fascism and, before that, with slavery. We responded with arguments against these false charges and, in many cases, made our commitment to democratic and progressive political aims clear, claiming that the classical is the most effective expression of those aims. There was a bit of progress: New classical projects for Federal courthouses and other facilities were finding public favor alongside new classical university buildings, commercial projects, and housing. Training in the classical for artists and architects was expanding, graduates found abundant work, and awards programs increased public awareness. Among academics, new scholarship was uncovering the complexities of the relationship between architecture and politics in the 20th century and revealing the modern movement’s own hidden connections with repressive political movements.
But when the Executive Order was leaked, an entirely predictable anti-classical hysteria swept the architecture community. The American Institute of Architects, the Society of Architectural Historians, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and numerous other organizations piled on. For many of these critics, the Trump administration’s policy on federal architecture just added proof to claims that the classical is accessory to repressive and anti-democratic regimes. Lovers of classical architecture like myself also protested the Executive Order but were ignored by the critics and attacked by fellow classicists for not coming to its defense. On this website, Christine Franck decried the unnecessary harm that the Executive Order has caused, and then was attacked on social media by people claiming to defend the classical tradition.
I reject the overheated rhetoric with which the architectural establishment condemned the Executive Order and classical architecture, which it unjustly identifies with all the worst motives of a corrupt and repellent administration.
I reject the overheated rhetoric with which the architectural establishment condemned the Executive Order and classical architecture, which it unjustly identifies with all the worst motives of a corrupt and repellent administration. But I am also appalled at the possibly well-meaning but politically tone-deaf would-be promoters of classical architecture who precipitated a completely unnecessary conflict and continue to fan the flames. Both groups have made classical architecture a weapon in a partisan conflict that, in truth, has nothing to do with it. We know this is not an isolated case, as no aspect of American life is now safe from being used to club someone over the head. I am tempted to say that our current society does not deserve classical architecture, whose primary role is to honor and elevate those who employ it and use it—thus its appeal to regimes seeking legitimacy through symbolism. What is there in our public life today that we might want to honor?
And then, on January 6, everything flipped: Now it was our classical Capitol that was under attack by supporters of the president who had signed the Executive Order. That great, if somewhat ungainly, monument, with its formal language inherited from antiquity and superb dome, is not defeated by these events but, on the contrary, calls us back to our senses. The Capitol and other classical landmarks of Washington belong to all the people, whether their taste be classical or modernist, whether they be Republican or Democrat. Conflict is nothing new to the “people’s house.” We must remember that Thomas Crawford’s sculpture of a female figure representing Freedom that crowns the dome was installed in December 1863 in the middle a brutal Civil War over the question of slavery. Freedom won that war, and at the opposite end of the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial celebrates the president who led us to that victory. A century after the defeat of the Confederacy, his monument provided the backdrop for the 1963 March on Washington, at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced, “I have a dream.” Nearby, the classicizing Second World War Memorial honors the Americans who fought and died to defeat fascism. The work of all these people remains incomplete, but what other art and architecture is capable of moving us to continue that struggle?
Let last week’s events make us love our national Capitol even more. Let us have more classical architecture to celebrate undefeated freedom and constitutional democracy, but let it come about because the process for selecting architects and approving designs has been freed from both prescriptions and proscriptions of style. Let the Biden administration make wise appointments to the staffs and review bodies that oversee federal projects, and let them require that new construction take seriously the wishes of the users and respect the local character and traditions of the places where we build. Let them build durably, sustainably, and resiliently. We don’t need more “classical” designs by architects incapable of producing them. James Ingo Freed’s Ronald Reagan Building, which ruined Washington’s Federal Triangle area, should be sufficient warning of the pitfalls of that approach. What is important is that new Federal architecture should uplift and engage the public, regardless of style, and it should be excellent. Classical art in our country must be placed at the service of the broadest possible spectrum of citizens so that all Americans recognize themselves in our public monuments, starting with a U.S. Capitol that ought to be, truly, the house of all the people.
Featured image via the New York Times.