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Trump’s Towering Folly on Federal Architecture

Martin Filler
The effective ban on modern architecture commissioned by the US government that Trump proposes is horrifyingly reminiscent of Hitler’s insistence that public buildings in the Third Reich hew to the Classical tradition.
A classical courthouse in Tuscaloosa
The Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse, by HBRA Architects, which opened in 2011, Alabama

I believe that analogies between current events and the Third Reich ought not to be made casually, if at all. Whenever it is claimed that someone is the new Hitler or that a present-day atrocity is another Holocaust, I instinctively reject the presumption that anything could be as bad as, let alone worse than, what the Nazis did. Nevertheless, it is becoming inescapably clear that the political modus operandi of Donald Trump in many respects resembles tactics employed by the Nazis. And because there is a strong possibility that Trump will be re-elected, regardless (or because) of the enormous damage he has already inflicted on our body politic, much worse may be yet to come.

We witness chilling evidence of classic dictatorial mind-control techniques being used by Trump on a daily, an hourly, and, thanks to Twitter, even a minute-by-minute basis. These include diversionary tactics, name-calling, gaslighting, and denigration of a free press; the mind-numbing repetition of counterfactual catchphrases (“witch hunt,” “no collusion,” “perfect phone call,” “read the transcripts”); the demonization of minority groups (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” and the Muslim travel ban); and the deliberate undermining of democratic institutions that had long been seen as fail-safe bulwarks against a power-mad chief executive.

Employing a favored despotic method, Trump and his gang have encouraged incremental legal and moral erosions that might seem small individually but cumulatively can have the same effect as sweeping abrogations of accepted rights. The Nazis learned that slowly paring away one individual freedom after another from Jewish German citizens would forestall an immediate mass exodus—“We can live with that,” was often their victims’ rationalized thinking—and after five years of steadily increasing restrictions, it took the frenzied pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938 for many Jews to comprehend their likely fate and flee at last.

Because of the thoroughgoing threat to democracy signaled by the Republican Party’s abject capitulation to Trump, I’ve heretofore thought it frivolous to address the aesthetics of the current regime, mindful of that old saw about rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. That was my attitude until February 4, when Architectural Record broke a news story about a proposed executive order that would make it mandatory for all new federally sponsored buildings to adhere to a Classical style. This effective ban on modern architecture commissioned by the US government is horrifyingly reminiscent of Hitler’s insistence that public buildings in the Third Reich hew to the Classical tradition (though usually a stripped-down version of it) and that modern design, except for some industrial uses, was streng verboten (strictly forbidden).

The seven-page draft document—alarmingly titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” in pandering mimicry of Trump’s red-cap campaign slogan “Make America Great Again”—was prepared by the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), a neoconservative design advocacy group founded in 2002. According to the NCAS website, the association “educates and empowers civic leaders in the promotion of public art and architecture worthy of our great Republic,” a seemingly admirable goal until it adds this qualification: “We do this by advancing the classical tradition in architecture, urbanism, and their allied arts.”

Among the observations in this astounding text is that the Design Excellence Program (a widely admired undertaking of the General Services Administration established in 1994) “has not reintegrated our national values into Federal buildings.” Exactly what those values might be is not clearly specified, beyond the baseless claim that “the Federal government has largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.” In support of this spurious assertion, it cites an American Institute of Architects survey on the public’s hundred and fifty favorite examples of American architecture, but misrepresents the findings as proving a preference for “buildings that predate the Guiding Principles to those built under them,” even though the list is chock-a-block with Modernist design of every stripe.

Conversely, the document lauds HBRA Architects’ Classical Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse of 2007–2011 in Alabama, an inert, bilaterally symmetrical columns-and-portico throwback that to me looks about as vital as a jar of pickled pig’s feet. If all that were not enough, the NCAS draft stipulates that when it comes to awarding federal architecture commissions, “participants shall not include artists, architects, engineers, art or architecture critics, members of the building industry, or any other members of the public that are affiliated with any interest group or organization involved with the design, construction or directly affected by the construction or remodeling of the building,” though presumably not excluding donors to the NCAS or the Republican Party.

New Yorkers have apprehended Donald Trump as a vulgarian of the first order ever since his emergence as a creature of the city’s tabloids in the late 1970s, when this scion of an outer borough middle-income-apartment builder reinvented himself as a Manhattan real estate macher. Starting in 2004, the rest of the country was regularly exposed to his braying, bullying, and preening narcissism through the reality TV series The Apprentice, which ran for twelve years and made him a national celebrity. So the last thing anyone expected when he took office in 2017 was a return to the cultural aspirations of Camelot.

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My longstanding interest in correlations between style and power has prompted me to write periodically on changes made to the décor of the White House since Jacqueline Kennedy’s exemplary restoration project of the early 1960s (most notably under the Nixons and the Reagans, design decisions that were not without political implications). In 2010, I commented for the Daily on the remake of the Oval Office for President Obama by the Los Angeles interior decorator Michael Smith, a rare rethinking of this highly symbolic room. Smith’s innovative scheme included a custom-designed elliptical carpet whose curving border incorporated inspirational quotations from Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. Unsurprisingly, the rug was removed by Obama’s successor, who has likewise systematically endeavored to undo his predecessor’s presidential legacy piece by piece. 

Trump—who in 2017 described the White House, which decorative arts experts consider one of the great museum houses of America, as a “dump”—may well act on his wish to erect a grandiose ballroom pavilion to rival Versailles on the executive mansion’s South Lawn. This addition would supersede both the nearly 3,000-square-foot East Room and what Trump has called “an old, rotten tent” of the sort that used to suffice for earlier presidents when state dinners were too large to accommodate in the executive mansion. Forget that the White House grounds might become rather cluttered, what with the Classical tennis pavilion now being built on the South Lawn.

Donald Trump holding model of tower

Bettmann via Getty Images

Donald Trump with a model of his Fifth Avenue tower, New York City, August 1, 1980

News of Trump’s Classical ukase (to use the word for a Tsarist edict) seemed particularly grotesque given the Trump Organization’s construction of some of the cheesiest Modernist buildings in recent history, epitomized by Der Scutt’s gold-mirror-glass glitzkrieg, Trump Tower of 1979–1983 in New York City. Unsurprisingly, the revelation prompted a firestorm of protest from all quarters of the architectural profession. Not only was the pending executive order predictably denounced by the left-leaning Architecture Lobby, which termed the document “a blatant attempt to leverage aesthetics in the service of white supremacy,” but also by a roll-call of establishment bodies including the American Institute of Architects, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the Society of Architectural Historians.

Even institutions strongly invested in carrying on the Classical tradition joined the chorus of dissent. Among them is the University of Notre Dame’s architecture school, which administers the annual Driehaus Architecture Prize, a $200,000 award established in 2003 to honor Classical architects who will never win the $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize. Responding to the draft executive order, Notre Dame’s architecture dean, Michael Lykoudis, wrote that, “I do not support the idea of a federally mandated architecture. I support the idea that the federal government should be truly inclusive rather than exclusive of architectural directions in its building programs… [W]hile architecture can be appropriated by political factions and used (or misused) for political ends, it… transcends politics.”

At first glance, the NCAS’s retrograde manifesto seemed merely a resurrection of the anti-Modernist architecture crusade launched almost four decades ago by Prince Charles, whose public (and probably unconstitutional) meddling in commissions he dislikes made him Britain’s self-appointed architectural censor. Defying a three-century-old tradition that the monarchy be non-partisan, Charles has exerted royal influence to enforce his preference for Classical and other neo-traditional architecture ever since an incendiary 1984 speech that resulted in a high-tech addition to London’s National Gallery being scrapped and its hapless designers being nearly bankrupted.

In 2009, Charles secretly and successfully lobbied the Emir of Qatar to reject Richard Rogers’s Modernist housing scheme for the Emirate’s property development firm near Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea. This stealth diplomacy occurred a year after the opening of the Royal Hospital’s Margaret Thatcher Infirmary, an anemic Classical design by the prince’s favorite living architect, Quinlan Terry, an arch-reactionary who believes that the five orders of Classical architecture were handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Ten Commandments. But there is a great difference between the cranky interventions of the heir to a figurehead throne and the law of the land as decreed by an authoritarian chief of state.

As might be expected with the rise of Trumpism, which has thrived in the Petri dish of social media, reactionary propaganda about modern architecture is being most effectively spread through the proliferation of crypto-fascist Twitter accounts that press for a return to Classicism and traditionalism. One ominously characteristic example, an account called ArchitecturalRevival, urges us to “Create places our ancestors would recognize and our children will be proud of. Beauty and Tradition Matters [sic].”

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This innocuous-looking but poisonously worded Twitter avatar has reiterated the telltale Nazi phrase “degenerate architecture” (Nazi code for Modernism as a “cosmopolitan” Jewish enterprise, much as Hitler saw Communism as a Jewish cabal). Furthermore, ArchitecturalRevival’s posts have included compare-and-contrast views of charmingly picturesque country villages posed against abstract, glass-walled urban buildings in simplistic juxtapositions that could have come straight from the pages of the neo-traditionalist architect, theorist, and Nazi party member Paul Schultze-Naumburg’s 1929 diatribe Das Gesicht des Deutschen Hauses (The Face of the German House), the architectural sequel to his 1928 Jew-baiting anti-Modernist polemic Kunst und Rasse (Art and Race), which became Hitler’s template for his all-out assault on modernity.

An even more menacing ArchitecturalRevival post titled “WE WILL MAKE IT HAPPEN” depicts Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Chicago Federal Center of 1958-1974 and Alexander Calder’s contiguous 1974 sculpture Flamingo being replaced by an equestrian statue and generic Classical/Baroque architecture under a text that promises “We will replace blandness with beauty, abstraction with meaning, and global monotony with national identity. Tradition is the future.” (The fact that the post elsewhere spells “honour” with a “u” indicates that it originated from outside the US.)

There have always been good and bad examples of every architectural style, no matter what the preponderant quality of building design was during any particular period, from Renaissance duds to Brutalist masterpieces, and from Roman monstrosities to Expressionist gems. This wide variation is as true of Classicism as it is of Modernism, as can be seen by the many poor nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Classical courthouses and state capitols that appear behind news reporters on television every day.

Though I have written mainly about modern architecture throughout my career, I am such an admirer of two late-phase British Classicists—the early-nineteenth-century genius John Soane, and his early-twentieth-century equal, Edwin Lutyens—that if any architect of their caliber were now to emerge, I would gratefully sing her or his praises. Alas, given what I have seen since the revival of by-the-book Classicism in the 1980s, I am not expecting such a transformative figure to appear anytime soon.

So, here we are again, being distracted and diverted by yet another of the peripheral issues through which Trump has repeatedly proven himself to be a master of media manipulation. There seems to be every likelihood that he will proceed with this Classical design fiat precisely because it caters to yet another of the reactionary special-interest groups he has gathered around him to preoccupy his opponents when far more crucial issues are at stake.

You’ve got to hand it to this shameless schlockmeister, whose contributions to America’s architectural landscape have included the Trump Taj Mahal Casino of 1990 in Atlantic City—John Nash’s Brighton Pavilion as hallucinated by Hunter S. Thompson on a Vegas acid trip. With the same flagrant hypocrisy he displays politically, Trump has now marketed himself as a guardian of taste with the impunity he has exhibited on the far weightier matters of a democracy that now hangs all the more precariously in the balance.     

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