Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A Presidential Order on Civic Architecture Will Engender Creativity and Variety

...and the Cultural Elites Who Deride It Are Wrong

I read recently of an Executive Order issued by President Donald Trump declaring the classical style of architecture tobe the preferred style for new government buildings, and that regardless of the style chosen, the building must be beautiful.

Predictably, the architectural institutes and leftists have objected, both parties faithfully reflecting the neo-Marxist theory that rejects all tradition. The problem with such an edict, so the argument runs, is that, among other things, it undermines the principle of cultural diversity and as such is “undemocratic.” And, as we know, in modern critical theory, “diversity” per se is an incontestable good!

I believe, in contrast, that what the President has done is a good thing, and if the EO survives the next administration (whoever that may be), it will likely encourage creativity, authentic originality, and a new richness in architectural style.
The Capitol, Washington DC
I am assuming sufficient goodwill from enough people to make it work for this to be the case, and this is, I admit, a big assumption. For example, to define what is meant by “classical” is probably not so easy. Anyone who has ever seen a photo of the Acropolis or the Capitol building knows classical style when they see it. But to define it so precisely that loopholes can’t be found by people who are determined to find them will be a difficult task. However, assuming that a genuine attempt is made to follow this in spirit for the beauty of our cities, and the good of those who work in the buildings, rather than the self-aggrandizement of the architect, then I believe that the result will be good.

So, to counter the objections: Firstly, if democracy really was the concern of the critics, then I am pretty sure there would be no modernist architecture ever. (I am using modern in a broad sense to mean those styles that arise from a conscious rejection of Western tradition.) The Trump administration said that polls indicated that classical was the preferred style of public and federal workers - those who will actually have to look at and work in the buildings. This does not surprise me. In my experience of decades of talking to people about art, it is “the many”, ordinary people (who don’t consider themselves members of the cognoscenti) who prefer traditional designs. On the other hand, it is the few - elites who are inclined to tell us what we ought to like - who advocate modernist designs and who dominate the teaching institutions that form the architects who go on to design such buildings.
This is the telling statement in the Reuters article cited above:
The White House official said that polling showed a vast majority of Americans prefer traditional designs and said some modern structures weren’t easily identifiable as public buildings. New construction should command respect by the general public and not just architectural elites, the official said.
One argument that I am sure will be used against the EO is that it will stifle creativity. In fact, in my opinion, the opposite will happen. It will encourage a rich and authentic diversity of beautiful architecture than that produced by architects who subscribe to the views of the modernist critics. 
As a rule, in art, if you narrow the width of the constraints, creativity finds room for maneuver by reaching for greater heights and depths. Rather than being a prescription for sameness and sterility, it is exactly the opposite: a mandate for beautiful creativity and variety. Take the iconographic style of sacred art as an example: this is perhaps the most narrowly defined artistic style that I know, yet the range of styles, reflecting time and place, is huge. My icon-painting teacher always used to say that someone who knows iconographic styles can look at an icon and from the style alone, identify when it was painted, to around 50 years, and from which geographical region it originates.
Accordingly, the likely result of this EO is the emergence of a new, American neo-classical style that is simultaneously a full participation in the essence of classicism as established 2,500 years ago, and a unique 21st-century American style. These two principles are not mutually exclusive. 
If we look at history, some of the most admired architectural styles began as attempts to copy the past. Without deliberate intent from the architects, their work was a product of the time and place in which it was created as well. So, for example, the High Renaissance classical style began as an attempt to recreate the classical style of the Roman worldt. It became its own distinct form of classicism known as Palladian architecture and in turn morphed into English Georgian and the American colonial style.

Georgian houses, Bath, England.
Similarly, AW Pugin, who was, ironically, reacting against the neo-classical architecture of the early 19th century (which Trump admires) set out to re-establish the Gothic (or as he called it ‘pointed’) style of architecture. Again, the result was a distinct form of Gothic architecture that was adopted widely because of the power of its beauty. Examples are across the globe in local variations - in India and Russia, across Europe, and in the US, for example. It created some of the most iconic buildings in the world, for example, Big Ben and Tower Bridge.
All of the varieties of architecture mentioned, Gothic or classical, arise from the traditional desire to participate in the beauty of Creation, which in turn bears the mark of the Creator.
In contrast, consider the architecture that is produced, when the mandate is that anything goes as long as it isn’t traditional (which is what dominates today). Look at inner cities around the world that have been developed since WW2. You can barely tell one from another, or what any individual building is for. All these cities in continents across the globe look pretty much the same, and for all the effort that has gone into creating the giant structures, the overall impression is of bland uniformity of ugliness. It is only the elites who push the theories that underlie their design who dare to admit that they like them (and one wonders if even then it is really true that they do in every case.)
This is a reflection, I would say, of the fact that there is no order outside God’s order, only disorder. There is no beauty that is not a participation in divine beauty, only a dull and bland uniformity of ugliness. And there is no originality if the origins of all beauty are no longer the source of inspiration. To shut out the traditional wellspring of inspiration, as modernity has done, is to rely on the despair and isolation of fallen man, and this runs dry very quickly. Looking to the cosmos and to God, on the other hand, is to tap into infinite possibilities of beautiful design.

The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Trump will no doubt continue to be derided by the cultural elites who think they know better and are anxious to preserve their own reputations and jobs, for his supposedly simplistic approach. The irony of this is that he has probably done more to establish a rich and inspiring culture of beauty than his puffed-up critics and their like have done for over a hundred years. If the Executive Order can remain in place, I envisage a cultural renewal that will make American cities the envy of the world.
The Parthenon, in the Acropolis, Athens

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: