There'll be no Bauhaus in this White House
Leaked US document urges an embrace of traditional and classical building styles
Hitler with architect Albert Speer, whose plans for Germany resembled nothing so much as a Rome for the third millennium. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/via Getty Images
Like most sensible people, I try not to mention Adolf Hitler when discussing the latest of Donald Trump’s outrages. If you push the apocalypse button too often it will cease to have any effect. Let’s wait until he invades Canada.
Mind you, he just makes it so easy. Trump has, in his efforts to lure us towards an infraction of Godwin’s Law, done everything short of turning vegetarian, taking up watercolours and growing a toothbrush moustache. The latest temptation comprises a leaked draft for an executive order on (still your pounding heart) the architecture of government structures. Emerging under the groan-friendly title “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”, the document – devised by the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) – urges a rejection of icky modernism and an embrace of “classical and traditional architecture styles”. Think of NCAS as boater-wearing trad jazz revivalists ranting about the excesses of decadent be-bop. If that won’t do we’ll drag up better analogies later.
You know who longed for a return to the pillars, proportions and porticoes of classical architecture? Well, yes, the Renaissance popes, but that’s not who I’m really getting at. The Prince of Wales? “What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend,” he famously said of a planned extension to the UK’s National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. Okay, okay. But misguided fogeyism won’t meet our purposes. It’s Hitler. How did you not get that? Albert Speer’s plans for Germania – a world capital to replace Berlin – resembled nothing so much as a Rome for the third millennium.
Hoi polloi may not have enjoyed the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock or the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, but nobody was forcing them to sleep in the things.
The resistance against what we still think of as “modern architecture” has lessened in recent decades. Better-lit, lighter spaces have taken over from a mid-century style that – in a staggeringly arrogant snub to the everyday public – architecture critics really did label “brutalism”. They could hardly have been less accommodating if they’d referred to the enormous, concrete pillboxes and looming, rain-stained escarpments as exercises in screw-youism. The word “impressionism” was originally coined as an insult before being embraced by practitioners and admirers of that influential movement. “Brutalism” took the same journey in reverse. Conceived as a celebration of a drift from fey sentimentalism, it came to be used – particularly in relation to unloved public housing projects – as a perfect riposte to the unfriendly structures and the people who designed them.
During that mid-century period, an unfair caricature emerged of The Architect as a fellow (too rarely a woman) who cared little for the faceless drones who took up space in their nasty reifications of abstract theory. These harsh-faced, shaven-headed men favoured aggressively thick spectacle frames and collarless shirts buttoned right up to the neck. If rumours were to be believed, they travelled each morning from beautiful Georgian manors in the country towards open-plan offices where they designed screw-youist dumps for the rest of the population. If people didn’t like their (to quote Le Corbusier) “machines for living in” then that was because they were too stupid to understand the instruction manual.
Not unreasonably, many reacted against the perceived elitism. Hoi polloi may not have enjoyed the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock or the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett, but nobody was forcing them to sleep in the things.
So goes the caricature. Much of this wasn’t true. Much of what was true has ceased to be so. A great deal of brutalist architecture remains deservedly unloved. A few rare examples – Erno Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower in West London, Habitat 67 in Montreal – have earned public affection, but the style has gone away and contemporary building less often triggers the reactions above.
Yet the myth is still important. That is what Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again is really about. It doesn’t much matter that the current regime has no plans for significant federal building of any sort. Trump got where he is today by setting certain bits of working-class America against a perceived (and sometimes actual) coastal elite that despised the rural interior. What better exemplar of such snoots than those awful architects with their Gitanes and their grey polo-necks and their Philippe Starck lemon squeezers?
The response to the leak confirms the strategy is already working. Writing in National Review, house newsletter of the American right, Collette Arredondo responded to the whinges from the architectural establishment. “What about the rest of us?” she wrote. “Do we have a say? We didn’t elect these people. Is there a collective sense that we like what they’ve designed?” Elsewhere, men and women in red spectacle frames bemoan the advance of a new barbarism.
Do you know who else profited from disagreement between everyday Joes and the uncaring urban elect? No, not the popes. No, not the Prince of Wales. This is so exhausting. Don’t let us have another four years of it.