A few days ago, the White House released documents pressing toward a new style guide for federal buildings. Officially, the executive order, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is a strike for the neoclassical style: the august, severe, and elegantly monochrome stone facades of the U.S. Supreme Court house, the UVA Rotunda, and our own Russell House. Ironically, many of the specific buildings lauded by the Trump Administration in the document are—beyond being pompous and ugly—not even neoclassical. They are in the infamously gaudy second empire style, the aesthetic wellspring of many of America’s worst public buildings, like the Philadelphia city hall and the New York State Assembly. The Trumpists don’t even know what style they want.
But while Trump’s appeal to classicism is childish, misinformed, and a veiled racist attack, the response of the architectural and media establishment has been laughably out of touch.
“We strongly oppose any effort to impose a narrow set of styles for future federal projects based on the architectural tastes of a few individuals,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation stated.
But the recent history of public architecture has been just that. Public buildings throughout the United States are vetted by the Design Excellence Program of the General Services Administration, by which well-known architects review proposals by other well-known architects to settle on plans for federal buildings. Thus, a small and highly educated coterie of professional architects have near unilateral discretion to shape our public space according to their vision. The New York Times editorial board recently described the system as, “little known but highly successful” in a response to the executive order.
This is absurd. Most people sincerely hate contemporary architecture, including thoughtful leftists. This matches the common polling result that while the educated prefer modern art, the masses favor impressionism and romanticism, styles more committed to appreciation of a scene and a moment than philosophical vision. Though modern and post-modern architecture do have their popular successes, many of these rely on integrating different traditional styles in a harmonious way, or cleverly exploiting beautiful surroundings to supplement what might otherwise be a barren and inhuman design.
Why do architects and the public diverge? There are several contributing factors. First, for obvious reasons, people who spend their lives creating buildings probably like different buildings than most people. They have distinctive personality traits, especially concerning openness to experience. Second, differences in knowledge produce differences in opinion. In opposition to Trump’s new plan, the New York Times Architecture critic noted that the National Museum of African American History’s facade reflects traditional West African sculpture in fascinating and resonant ways. This would be impossible under Trump’s scheme. But here’s the thing: if you don’t know anything about West African sculpture or why it was influential to the construction of this museum, you’re less likely to care about these new stylistic guidelines or their implications. Third, just as people who’ve eaten lots of chocolate tire of Hershey’s and want something weirder, people who spend all their lives thinking about buildings generally like weird buildings. An expert’s favorites might be mildly nauseating to everyone else.
If you’re not convinced by polling that Americans are uninterested in the services of architects, you can see they’ve voted with their feet. I speak of the terrible scourge that has remade the American landscape: McMansionization. McMansions, the mass-produced architectural Frankensteins of the house world, are ubiquitous. Many agree they are awful, and they intrude even into public space. Nothing could better confirm that much of the public is uninterested in the taste of architects than that they have ignored architects entirely. As thoughtful architecture has fled the masses, the masses have fled from thoughtful architecture.
Both the McMansion and contemporary high architecture suffer from the same problem: incongruity. And it is curiously unique to them. Remarkably, traditional architecture is fascinating and beautiful anywhere in the world that you go, from Tikal to Kyoto. Even systems of architecture invented totally independently of our own delight and awe us. It is only in the 20th century—or perhaps the 19th or the 18th—that truly excruciating buildings first emerged. As buildings grew, concrete, plate glass, and sheet metal became immensely cheaper, and abstract expressionists favored transhumanist visions over commonly accepted visual vocabularies. Past architects couldn’t be too jarring because it was impossible, and because tastes emerged slowly, keeping them tied to common sentiment. Despite the opinions of some writers at the New York Times, nothing stops innovative architects from producing pleasant and location appropriate structures. Whole dimensions of pleasant aesthetic space remain unexplored. But too often, exploration is pursued to the exclusion of all else.
So, Trump’s order responds to two real problems, though in a childlike, mindless, and flailing manner. But is this the fault of the Trump Administration? How should political hacks conceive tasteful and effective solutions to the problems of the public? Trump’s executive order is provincial and illiterate because it faces problems the architectural establishment has failed to address. They have ignored the issue of incongruence, and have been hopelessly outmatched by McMansionization, barely making any attempt to make architectural expertise desirable and useful to the general public.
Perhaps these two problems are the same. Obviously, there are purely economic forces which brought about the rise of ugliness. Since the 1970s, it has become cheaper to enclose space, and income inequality has risen. Thus, the “Stranger Things” split levels of your parents’ neighborhoods have given way to the 5,000 square foot beasts of today. No more architectural thought was put into those split-levels than into the contemporary, “neo traditional” but the split-levels were smaller. In their proportion to size and human scale ’70s neighborhoods have a beauty, or at least tolerability, echoing the favelas of Brazil or the favelas of the past: the Quartieri Spagnoli di Napoli, the Albaicin, and the Kasbah. This kind of spontaneous beauty doesn’t scale. So, perhaps all that happened is that building thoughtlessly is so cheap that Americans abandoned beauty; getting rid of the second windowless rumpus room is too high a price to pay for exterior elegance and well placed natural light.
But that’s not the whole story. It is not only that Americans abandoned beauty en masse. Beauty abandoned them. When governments, elites, and civil societies engage with the populace and encourage participation in beauty that fits into everyone’s aesthetic sensibilities, beauty can pervade our lives. This has succeeded most in “le concours des villes et villages fleuris.” Ostensibly, this program is a competition, like the Michelin star, where towns and villages in France battle to maintain the finest greenspaces, flowers and gardens. But it is more. It is a public project, a classic French “grand projet” to fit beauty into the everyday. Thousands of towns and millions of people participate. So we see, the public will spend massive amounts of time and money for beauty. You just have to meet them halfway. Beauty cannot be chained to the ideological goals of philosophers and aesthetes. It must be inclusive. The disgraced, then undisgraced, now deceased aesthetic philosopher Roger Scruton put it best in advocating for, “polite modernism.” Architecture is more than elites creating icons and realizing grand conceptual visions. But that’s just what has been forced upon the public.
In sum, we see a pattern of popular revolt which has emerged again and again through the Trump era. Cross-cultural and cross-racial resentment against the opinions and prescriptions of cultural elites is used to leverage support for an agenda of homophobia, xenophobia, and cultural regression, with nothing productive even proposed and the only concrete result being massive tax cuts on the wealthy. But whose fault is the lack of substantive solutions? Is it the public, whose maladjusted protestations do little but destroy? Or was it the haughtiness of the ivory tower, abandoning the populace to their fate while sucking dry the intellectual and organizational resources which had the power to help?
Tom Hanes is a member of the class of 2020. Tom can be reached at email@example.com.