Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Aesthetics by Decree: Trump’s Proposal on “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”


What follows is a guest post by Jay Miller.


The neoclassical Lincoln Memorial, designed by Henry Bacon (1922) [source]

Recently, a draft proposal of a presidential executive order was obtained and printed by the Chicago Sun-Times. Under the banner of “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” the leaked document effectively mandates the classical style of architecture for all federal buildings in the U.S. It seeks to right the wrongs of modernist architecture by officially proclaiming the classical style of architecture “the preferred and default style” for federal buildings. The proposal proceeds by first identifying the culprits: It blames the federal government for “largely abandon[ing] traditional, classical designs” in the 1950s; it accuses the General Services Administration (GSA) of overseeing “aesthetic failures”; even more specifically, it takes aim at the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” drafted in 1962 by an aide of the Kennedy administration, for having “implicitly discouraged” classical and other designs “known for their beauty.” Yet, the real target of the proposal (henceforth MFFBA) are the Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles of modernist architecture, which it explicitly equates with the loss of beauty in American federal architecture over the past seventy years or so. In practical terms, this amounts to a federal mandate for classical architecture and a de facto moratorium on modernist architecture for any federal building costing more than $50 million. This includes any renovations or design upgrades to buildings of equal value. And any proposed deviations from classical and traditional designs must be vetted by the “President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture,” and must ultimately be submitted to the President for review prior to final approval.

I’ll go ahead and dispense with any pretense to political neutrality here. Because, really, the first step in taking MFBBA seriously is to acknowledge the veritable feast of ironies and absurdities offered up in the space of its mere seven pages.

So never mind that, even as the proposal readily appropriates the language of the 1962 Guiding Principles’ recommendation for federal architecture which reflects “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of America’s system of self-government,” it bluntly contradicts that document’s firm and explicit insistence that “an official style must be avoided,” that the design of Federal buildings “must flow from the architectural profession to the government,” not the other way around. Never mind the glaring irony of actually mandating a style of architecture because it is seen to embody the values of freedom and democracy (a Wired article dubs it “one of the most blatantly authoritarian things the government has yet attempted”). Never mind that the document was drafted by the relatively obscure interest group, National Civic Art Society, whose stated mission is “to help architecture return to its pre-Modernist roots” and whose president, Justin Shubow, made a name for himself, not as an architect (he is not), but as an outspoken critic of Frank Gehry’s architecture (and whom, in typical fox-in-the-henhouse approach to federal appointments, Trump picked to head up the above-mentioned “Re-Beautification” committee). Never mind that classicism is an imported good. Never mind that modernist architecture has a distinctly American provenance extending well beyond Brutalism and Deconstructivism—one that doesn’t seem to bother Trump’s real estate sensibilities in the slightest. Never mind that the such heavy-handed weighing in on aesthetic styles comes from a president whose only interest in expressive culture is a garishly opulent personal aesthetic that could best be described as golden-toilet rococo, and whose latest budget proposal aims to defund the NEA and NEH entirely. And on and on.

Absurd and impractical and ideologically-tainted though it may be, MFFBA stands out among other policy proposals from the Trump administration in this one respect: It is predicated on some remarkably bold aesthetic judgments. To the aesthetically-minded reader, it offers something to consider seriously, namely, the relation between aesthetics and politics. Including the rather ham-fisted title, the document repeatedly (ten times, by my count) praises classical architecture for its beauty. Pre-modern specimens of Federal architecture are “beautiful and beloved.” They are “known for their beauty.” Classical and traditional architectural styles “value beauty,” and have “proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government.” And other such aesthetic assertions.

Even bolder pronouncements can be found, however, in the string of negative aesthetic judgments it makes against modern architecture. Contemporary architecture on the whole is proclaimed to be “a failure.” Its failures range from being “uninspiring” to “just plain ugly,” producing aesthetic responses such as “bewilderment” and even “repugnance.” In contrast to the great exemplars of classical governmental architecture—e.g. the White House and the Capitol Building—modernist architecture does not, and indeed cannot, give “visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.” Brutalism fails for its “massive, monolithic, stark, and block-like appearance with a rigid geometric style,” whereas deconstructivism fails for its communication of “fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry, and”—get this—“the appearance of instability.”

Architectural losers include: The San Francisco Federal Building; the Austin U.S. Courthouse, and the Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Miami; The Hubert H. Humphrey Departement of Health and Human Services Building; the Frances Perkins Department of Labor Building; the Robert C. Weaver Department of Housing and Urban Development Building. These buildings “have little aesthetic appeal.” They invite “public derision instead of admiration.” In short, they are not making America great.

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Critics of MFBBA (such as this one, this one, and this one) have been quick to draw comparisons with Hitler’s penchant for exploiting neoclassical architecture to suit the ideological ends of Nazism. Indeed, the carefully cultivated symbolism and imagery of National Socialism is on the whole just an appropriated version of the Romanesque aesthetic, exaggerated for dramatic effect. And the particular ability of architecture to project power through design became, for the Führer, something of an obsession. With the acquisition of political power, what began for Hitler as a litany of complaints about un-German architecture in Mein Kampf soon culminated in the absurdly ambitious master plan to transform central Berlin into the neo-Roman architectural spectacle of Germania. So yes, MFBBA gives off a bad whiff of history repeating itself.

Such comparisons, however, miss the mark. Not because they overstate the authoritarian strategy behind such measures, but because they assume there is a strategy at all. When Walter Benjamin warns against the “aestheticization of politics,” he seems to attribute to fascist bureaucrats a capacity for sophisticated cultural engineering that may not be entirely warranted. In his memoirs, Albert Speer, head architect of the Third Reich and close confidant of Hitler, reflects that, although Hitler liked the classical style “because he thought he had found certain points of relationship between the Dorians and his own German world […] it would be a mistake to try to look within Hitler’s mentality for some ideologically based architectural style. That would not have been in keeping with his pragmatic way of thinking.” Similarly, it would be a mistake to read MFBBA as part of some elaborate campaign to sway public sentiment through aesthetic form. By assuming there is some strategy at work to manipulate art for political purposes, such comparisons cede too much to what is really just the default style of the cultural reactionary.

A more charitable reading of MFBBA might instead draw a comparison with Plato’s decidedly un-democratic take on artistic freedom in The Republic. On par with Plato’s reasoning in advising future statesmen to censor the poets, the case for Making America Beautiful Again issues from a visceral mistrust of modernism coupled with a hyper-nationalist imperative to restore the U.S. to some mythic past. I suppose it’s somewhat comforting to think that such a proposal might be met with the same amused chuckle that Plato’s own efforts to aestheticize politics inspires in us today. (“Haha! Better not let those Ionian and Lydian modes get folks all tearful and lugubrious! Do the Republic a favor and jam some of those Dorian and Phrygian tunes to get those soldiers all pumped up for battle!”) As it happens, however, MFBBA has prompted an avalanche of criticism from an international community of scholars and architects who complain that a federally decreed architectural style undermines aesthetic freedom in general. The American Institute of Architects, for example, recently issued the following statement:

AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.

Taken seriously, we might worry that this present proposal severely undermines the autonomy and integrity of the architectural profession, just as we might criticize Plato’s efforts to censor the arts. Even more worrisome than MFBBA’s attempt to restrict the aesthetic imagination of architects, however, is the fact that it is forged from a complete lack of imagination. Plato at the very least understood the force of aesthetic imagination—which, of course, explains his draconian efforts to blunt the sensuous allure of the arts within his fabled utopian republic. By contrast, the present effort to dictate classicism from on high makes no appeal whatsoever to the “lovers of sights and sounds.” It is not fear of imagination that makes for the unwholesome coupling of aesthetics and politics presented in this proposal, but rather utter indifference to it. Classicism is proposed as the “the preferred and default style” because, in the absence of any real aesthetic preference, classicism becomes the default.

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It is entirely possible that MFBBA is just an opportunistic pitch by hardline traditionalists. It is perhaps not coincidental that it was issued on the heels of Trump’s highly publicized declaration of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building as “one of the ugliest buildings” in Washington, D.C. But for all the problems that the effort to turn classical architecture into propaganda presents at the political level, the real problem concerns the aesthetic implications of MFBBA: It threatens to turns classical architecture into kitsch. For all of its appeals to the “beauty” of classical architecture, it is void of any actual aesthetic judgments. No case has been made for the aesthetic superiority of Greek and Roman structures, or for their suitability as architectural exemplars of American ideals. The preference for the classical is just the default position of the traditionalist, a by-product of an anti-modernist worldview. But if the beauty of classical architecture is won chiefly on the virtue that it is not modern architecture, that is beauty bought on the cheap.

Interestingly, no one in this debate really contests the aesthetic merits of classicism. Criticism of MFBBA does not rest on challenging the beauty of classical architecture (or, for that matter, defending the beauty of Brutalist or Deconstructivist architecture). This is why many of the attempts to defend the pro-classical stance of MFBBA, such as that offered in the National Review, fall flat. They grapple with straw men. The most robust case that can be made on behalf of classical architecture is one that confronts the aesthetic implications of the proposal. Because the real issue here is not where one stands on aesthetic preferences, but why.  There are plenty of reasons, for example, to prefer realism over abstraction. Maybe your dog could have painted that de Kooning. But if that is the chief basis of your praising the Disney-esque kitsch of a Thomas Kinkaid painting instead, you really haven’t done realism any favors.

And let’s admit, this is exactly the kind of victory that is won for classicism with Trump’s stamp of approval: the same vacuous praise that “Gone with The Wind” gets when Trump really just wants to protest a foreign film winning an Oscar. Now, one might very well defend the populist tone of MFBBA, as does Andrew Ferguson, writing for the Atlantic. As an empirical matter, it may be the case that most Americans prefer buildings with classical forms. But, as Ferguson readily acknowledges, if Trump signs the draft, it will likely not be because he “truly believes it will elevate the quality of federal architecture and thereby the general level of citizenship,” but rather because “he doesn’t care one way or the other but knows it will send his enemies right around the bend.” But for those of us who do care, who genuinely admire many examples of traditional architecture, this effort to decree classical architecture should be seen as a threat to its aesthetic integrity. For it threatens to turn the otherwise rich forms of classical architecture into a pseudo-populist symbol, a jingoistic trinket, a meme, a red hat with white lettering: MFBBA. It threatens to turn all classicism into kitsch.

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In closing: a concession to the autonomist. Often times, the autonomist, who insists on maintaining a clean separation between art and politics in matters of aesthetic judgment, is forced to reckon with examples of art where this is neither possible nor prudent. At other times, however, the autonomist is there to remind us of the value in preserving the aesthetic. Now is certainly one of those times, with the proposed executive order to mandate classicism presenting such an egregious and aggressive encroachment on the aesthetic that it threatens to corrupt the beauty of classical architecture altogether. There are, of course, countless reasons to oppose Trump’s signing MFBBA. But opposition should be grounded in aesthetic rather than political reasons. For anyone who genuinely appreciates the bulging rotundas, the triangular pediments, the simple and symmetrical designs, the coffered ceilings, or the signature interplay of the abacus, angled scroll, and upward flourish of acanthus leaves atop the slightly swollen columns of a portico, such an empty endorsement of classicism presents as good a reason as any to defend the integrity of the aesthetic.

Notes on the Contributor
Jay Miller is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Warren Wilson College.

Edited by Alex King

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