“Style is the answer to everything.” That’s the opening line of a Charles Bukowski poem written in 1972, which wanders towards a few peculiar observations: “Not many have style / Not many can keep style / I have seen dogs with more style than men.”
Donald Trump has style, and has pursued its development for decades towards a final, widely-broadcasted presidential act. Through style, he has become a corpulent, red-tied anti-Godiva: all the town’s eyes are on him. To look away is taboo, virality feeds on him.
There is a yearning relief among his opponents that the time might come — maybe next year — when his legacy will be relegated to history books and old newspaper clippings. Some have warned that he will be televised, channelled into a surreal but profitable talking-head that will captivate his base for years to come. But beyond the dubious stability of his border wall, we haven’t reckoned with the possibility that Trump might leave behind more permanent, architectural symbols to his administration.
That is until Tuesday, when Architectural Record obtained a draft copy of an executive order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” An attempt to rewrite the existing guiding principles used by the General Services Administration (GSA) to determine the design of federal buildings, the mandate would ensure that the “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” of future federal design projects. If implemented, this shift could not only jeopardize the design quality of billions of dollars’ worth of state construction projects, but also extend the ideology of Trump far beyond the ogling eyes of the media and into the town itself.
It is off-putting to pair classical architecture with Donald Trump, not only because classical democratic values often butt heads with his policies. As a developer and brand, Trump has already left an indelible mark of a different kind — towering modernist residences and casinos that share the same gaudy, gold-foiled spirit of his Manhattan penthouse. His border wall reveals a similarly impotent attempt at building “big” instead of beautiful, and unlike this recent neoclassical pipe-dream, these displays of power and wealth are authentic products of the man who now sits in the Oval Office.
Nonetheless, the legacy of classical architecture has been revived as much by authoritarian regimes as by democratic revolutionaries. L’Enfant might have laid out Washington D.C. with the aspirations of a nascent democracy, but one of the first revivals of this ancient architecture was brought about by the cardinals, popes, and oligarchs of Renaissance Italy. Classical architecture has continued to be deployed towards the aggrandizement of powerful institutions, finding unforgettable associations with totalitarianism — most notably under the Nazi regime and its chief architect, Albert Speer.
Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film, Olympia, is set against the backdrop of one of his most lasting monuments, the neoclassical Olympiastadion in Berlin. The film, regarded as one of the greatest of all time for its technical innovations, both depicted and defined the visual culture of German fascism.
British historian Paul Gilroy in his book, Against Race: Imagining political culture beyond the color line, notes how Hitler exploited the creative and stylistic aspect of his politics and brought this creativity to life through newly available technologies such as radio and television. He used visual culture and talents such as Riefenstahl to bring the “voice from on high” in the rally, to the stadium, to the theater, and then to the kitchen table. “Hitler could be enormous on a cinema screen and then shrink down to the size of a poster or postcard.” He writes. “This elasticity of scale was an essential element in the quality of his calculated, superhuman stature.”
Trump has already achieved dominance of our media channels across several scales — from Twitter to the television screen and from C-SPAN to the online meme — but this latest attempt at defining architectural style is a power-grab of a greater, physical scale: one aimed at capturing our built environment. This project is set to be carried out through a fascist blueprint: the forceful deployment of repurposed and contorted historical symbols.
According to the Architectural Record‘s report:
“The draft order argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of ‘democratic Athens’ and ‘republican Rome’ for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation’s ‘self-governing ideals’ (never mind, of course, that it was the prevailing style of the day).”
It is the coerced and anachronistic exploitation of these symbols as a mobilizing political force that characterizes the fascist project. It seeks to unearth and fabricate a narrative that can appeal to the masses, based on a system that allows only the expression of nationally shared desires. To accomplish this impossible task, fascism suppress an infinite web of multicultural differences into a flattened national narrative, while shuttering individual creativity.
To be clear, the problem with the draft executive order doesn’t lie within neoclassical architecture itself, but in its deployment for a higher political purpose under the direction of the president. The authoritarian danger lies within its call to create a presidential Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture, with members appointed by the president himself.
Similar distasteful associations between classicism and authoritarianism can be found with the “ugly” brutalist and modernist architecture that Trump’s mandate would seek to counteract — and not only in that which has been dubbed “socialist modernism.” So far, the overwhelming majority of federal architecture in the 70 plus years since the GSA was established, including the headquarters of our favorite 3-letter agencies — the IRS, the FBI, and the NSA — have aligned to a cold, modernist frigidity.
These representations are truthful to the workings of the state. Our modern architects and bureaucrats have not lied to us, as they have in other centuries, with sprawling classical and beaux-arts overhauls. Most GSA buildings have, in their form, been openly testament to an increasingly secretive, self-contained, and all-seeing state apparatus. They should not represent anything else but the brutality of government institutions that are no longer simply concerned with collecting taxes, but also the details of our personal lives, by force.
While there is little redemption in touring the sprawling office parks of these agencies, it is still fulfilling to walk under the colonnades of 19th century neoclassical plantation homes, to tour Renaissance gardens, and even to visit old prisons. We find comfort in old monuments when we forget their origins. We show our capability for forgiveness, a convivial quality that allows us to live a semblance of peace in our old world.
However, we should not confuse this longing for classical architecture as a sign that sometime in history architecture took a wrong turn. The romantic and classical world did not face the existential dangers of modernity, from the destruction of two world wars to the possibility of nuclear fallout and irreversible climate change. Our architecture has not been classicist because it has been streamlined for global production, made even more effective towards the service of what has always been behind most great architecture: power.
Now that this power is carried out globally in a connected society, our buildings communicate in uniform and efficient ways the forms that can be transmitted thousands of miles through BIM software, and not through the energy that originally came from the hands of a skilled stonemason. Neoclassical architecture could never find an adequate place in today’s world. Posturing a revival admits to the same rotten impulses that guided Prince Charles to denounce modern architecture in his infamous speech before the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1984 — it is monarchic when it isn’t outright fascist, an inadequate response to an ugliness of our own making.
Is style the answer to everything? Bukowski urges us to find it within little things, like “herons standing quietly in a pool of water,” in the sport of boxing, and even in the act of “opening a can of sardines.” These are innocent expressions of style, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that the stylization of politics is one of the most dangerous indications of totalitarianism. If anything should not have a style, it’s the architecture of the American state.