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What is classical architecture? It’s not exactly what the Trump administration thinks it is

Reuters/Joshua Roberts
History lesson.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

A proposal called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is causing an uproar in American architectural circles.

Earlier this month, a rumor surfaced that the Trump administration is drafting an executive order that would anoint “classical architectural style” as the “preferred and default style” for federal buildings across the country. The seven-page document singles out brutalism and deconstructivism as styles to avoid. The mandate, which applies to new government buildings that cost $50 million to erect, seeks to overturn the fundamental doctrine for public infrastructure in the US. The widely-respected 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture explicitly states that “an official style must be avoided” and that buildings ought to “reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the nation” where they’re located.

Quartz has contacted the White House several times to verify the veracity of the leaked document but has yet to receive a response. First reported by Architecture Record on Feb. 4, the Trump administration has remained silent about the purported executive order, but this hasn’t prevented angry practitioners, academics, and critics from unleashing a hailstorm of protest in the form of manifestos, public statements, and op-eds. The American Institute of Architects already has a petition in progress to stop the agenda.

Many opponents of the proposal were quick to draw parallels to Adolf Hitler, who favored neoclassical architecture for his private spaces and schemed monoliths based on the tenets of classicism with architect Albert Speer.

Creative Commons
A rendering of the Volkshalle, an unbuilt monument schemed by Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer

Classicism isn’t a style

There are intellectual and moral reasons why dictating a single aesthetic program for public buildings is a terrible idea, as critics have pointed out. But there’s an even more basic flaw in “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” Reading the language of the executive order, it appears that the Trump administration doesn’t fully grasp what classical architecture actually is.

Page four of the draft defines classical architecture in these terms:

“Classical architecture style” means the architectural style derived from the forms and principles of classical Greek and Roman architect, and as later employed by such Renaissance architects as Michelangelo and Palladio; such Enlightenment masters as Christopher Wren and Robert Adam; such nineteenth-century architects as Charles F. McKim, Robert Mills, and Richard Morris Hunt; and such 20th-century practitioners as John Russel Pope and the firm of Delano and Aldrich.”

For one, classicism isn’t a style but an approach to design. “Working effectively in the classical language requires a good deal of training and discipline,” explains Richard Longstreth an architecture historian at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. “Very few architectural schools teach in this realm today,” he says.

In a sense, classicism has become the Esperanto of American architecture. Modernism, positioned as an avatar for progress, rebellion and innovation, is the dominant aesthetic language in the US today. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana is the only school in the country dedicated to teaching classical architecture in earnest. (The University of Miami and Yale University teach classical architecture alongside a modernist curricula.) Notre Dame’s dean, Michael Lykoudis wrote a strongly-worded rebuke of the executive order, arguing how the proposal “potentially reduces an entire architectural philosophy to a caricature.”

In an interview with Quartz, Lykoudis laments the executive order’s narrow and outdated premise. “The document presents the issue exclusively on stylistic terms,” he says. “There is no understanding indicated about how buildings and their surroundings interact, how buildings are made, how long they last and how they support an environmental sustainability. It’s one thing for the government to set criteria for federal buildings and another to address the federal building program as if it were a stage set.”

The misconceptions about classicism coded in the executive order isn’t uncommon, says Lykoudis, who once worked for the eminent American classical architect Allan Greenberg. Shoehorning fancy columns in front of a structure, for instance, doesn’t make a classical building. Classical buildings, in fact, don’t even have to have columns at all. For instance, the Queen’s House, a former royal residence in the borough of London, has all the facets of classical building minus the columns.

© Bill Bertram 2006, Creative Commons
A classical building without columns: The Queens House in southeast London.

Lykoudis also points to Florida’s Alto Lee Adams Sr. US Courthouse as another example of a classical building without a doric, ionic, or Corinthian column in sight.

Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects
Alto Lee Adams Courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida.

A global phenomenon, beyond Greece and Rome

To insist that classical architecture originated from Western Europe isn’t just ignorant; it’s racist, argues Nathaniel Walker, an associate professor of architectural history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

Walker reminds us that Western builders actually appropriated tenets of classicism from Egypt and Persia. “Greek architecture is unthinkable without Egypt,” he tells Quartz. “They begged, borrowed and stole from other societies.”

In an eye-opening lecture at the Institute for Classical Architecture and Arts last year, Walker demonstrates how centuries-old structures like the Adajal Stepwell in Gujarat, India, the Guanyin Pavilion in China’s Yangtze River, the embellished arches in Leptis Magna in Libya, and the Grand Palace of Sayil in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula evokes the highest expressions of classicism. “Classical architecture is still relevant today because it goes beyond Greece and Rome and into every continent,” he says.

Creative Commons
The Grand Palace of Sayil, Mayan architecture in the Mexican state of Yucatán, exemplifies classicism.
Reuters/Ammar Awad
The Dome of the Rock is an example of classical architecture, too.

Upholding Thomas Jefferson’s take on classicism is particularly problematic, explains Walker.

He says that America’s founding father looked to a provincial period in ancient Rome as a template for a self-governing, slave-owning society. “Thomas Jefferson hated cities and thought they were open sores on the body politic. His love of Roman architecture had to be detached from urban life and was rooted in a very specific kind of historical fantasy about country gentlemen who also own slaves.”

In designing buildings in Washington, DC, Jefferson ignored the advice of Benjamin Latrobe, a neoclassical architect and appointed surveyor of US public buildings who tried to introduce a broader understanding of classicism. “Jefferson loved architecture, but only as a means to fulfill this historical fantasy about Republican Rome,” Walker says.

Reuters/Amit Dave
Classical architecture in Gujarat, India.

So, what is classical architecture?

Lykoudis frames it in terms of a building’s “neighborliness,” writing that “as the original masters of classical architecture knew, successful buildings must take into account the importance of street life and be scaled for humans, informed by the wishes of local residents.” Classical designs are in opposition to the showy, attention-grabbing modernist baubles designed by the late Zaha Hadid and her ilk, he explains.

Walker points out that classical architecture cherishes human proportions and our connection to nature. Windows and passages are designed to frame people, and the symmetry of buildings mimics the human body, flowers, and even musical chords. There’s an inherent softness and accommodation built into classicism. Those ornamental capitals on top of columns were a way to muffle the violence of a vertical pillar piercing into a horizontal beam or entablature.

It ultimately boils it down to three things: usefulness, durability, and beauty. “If you follow those three principles, then you’re arguably a classicist,” says Walker.

Classicism isn’t necessarily fascist

Historians caution against lumping classicism with the fascist brand.

The notion that classicism has an inherent political bias is false, according to Lykoudis. “What they don’t say is that the Third Reich also used modernism in the [design of] factories for Volkswagen and BMW. That was done deliberately to show the prowess of the German war machine,” he explains.

To his point, several figures who championed modernism in the US, like architect Philip Johnson, believed in the Nazi ideology. Even avant-garde architect Mies van der Rohe once tried to turn the Berlin incarnation of the Bauhaus into the official Nazi design school. Fascist Italy too sponsored some innovative modern architecture, adds Longstreth. Among them is the boxy Casa del Fascio in Como, Italy’s art deco pavilion for the 1925 Paris world fair, and the futurism-inspired Fiat factory in Turin.  

Motive ultimately reveals the moral quality of architecture. Dictators across history—from Hitler to Joseph Stalin to North Korean founding father Kim Il Sung—used the prevailing modes of building to promote their political agenda. “Anytime you have a powerful tool, whether it’s bronze, hydraulics, or gun power, it can be used for good or for ill,” says Walker. “Classical architecture—with all the poetry of structure and the natural botanical forms that cause our souls to sing—can and has been abused.”

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