Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A Bill To Prescribe Traditional Architectural Styles for Federal Buildings

Beautiful architecture by the people, for the people, and of the people?

Last Wednesday, Rep. Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, introduced legislation to codify an executive order by former President Trump that made classical architecture the model for new government buildings, an order which was axed by President Biden. He was recently interviewed on the subject by on Fox News.

The “Beautifying Federal Civic Architecture Act” declares “traditional and classical” architectural styles to be preferred for new Federal government buildings. This offers hope, at least, that we might again see a national culture that is beautiful and is in harmony with Christian values.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident, famously said on coming to the US (quoting Dostoevsky) that, ‘Beauty will save the world.’ I would assert that in order to save the world, we must first save America, and that in order to do that, beauty must save America. I write as one, incidentally, who recently became an American citizen, because I want to help save the West through beauty.

Those who wish to see a strong American society rooted in traditional values focus, quite rightly, on the political battles, but can forget at times that this ought to be an urgent cultural battle as well. This is a shame, because a noble and accessible culture of beauty is the greatest ally that those politicians who strive for what is good in America can have. As the British conservative philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, put it, when the world around us is beautiful, ‘it tells us that we are at home in the world.’

When we are at home in the world, our desire is to conserve and develop further what is good, rather than to destroy the institutions of society. Furthermore, beauty inspires in us love for our fellow men, generates a culture of faith and virtue that supports the generation of wealth, and our desire to care for the poor. I have previously written about this principle here.

The neo-Marxist theorists who have steadily gained control of the institutions that influence culture in the West understand this well. They have nothing but disdain for the common taste, and for decades, they have deliberately sought to further their political goals by promoting a contemporary culture of ugliness, despair and death, in order to spark revolutionary and destructive anger directed against the America of the Founding Fathers. Beauty raises our hearts and minds to God, and in so doing, reinforces our desire to live by American values, which are rooted in Scripture and Judeo-Christian values. The Marxists know this, even if many Christians seem not to. Accordingly, the Marxists push ugliness, because they know it undermines traditional values. Their architecture of despair distracts our gaze from ‘heavenly things’, as St Paul puts it, and hence from an adherence to objective truth, leaving us vulnerable to manipulation by false propaganda.
The brutalist US Dept of Health and Human Services, the Hubert H Humphrey building. This speaks directly of the disdain that the elites who push this style have for those whom they serve. It says, ‘You may not like it, but we know better than you, as with everything else we do.’
I was delighted therefore to see in December 2020, right at the end of his term, that President Donald Trump (not a man popularly associated with high culture) issue a barely noticed Executive Order mandating that federal buildings should adopt the traditional American style of classical architecture. I wrote about it at the time as a move that would set a standard for American buildings that could be a visible symbol of the traditional American values of faith, freedom and justice. At last, I thought, at the highest level, we have a move that recognizes the importance of culture in preserving and promoting American values, which are rooted in Judeo-Christian values. “If the EO survives the next administration, it will, contrary to what it’s critics on the left claim, likely encourage creativity, authentic originality, and a new richness in architectural style that can be the driving force for a beautiful American culture that speaks authentically of its past and directs us hopefully to its future.”

It turns out that was an important ‘if’. Within a month of Joe Biden becoming President, the EO was scrapped.

Now, thanks to Rep Jim Banks, there is a proposed bill that seeks to do the same, and which adds more detail and direction to the original mandate. For example, as his press release tells us, it specifies that: 
“The term ‘traditional architecture’ includes classical architecture; and the historic humanistic architecture, including Gothic, Romanesque, Pueblo Revival, Spanish Colonial, and other Mediterranean styles of architecture historically rooted in various regions of America, the bill states. 

The bill denounces modern, ‘brutalist’ styles of buildings made popular in the 20th century, defined as a ‘massive and block-like appearance with a rigid geometric style and large-scale use of exposed poured concrete.’ Buildings should instead be modeled after ‘Greek and Roman antiquity’ like the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court. 

Banks said his bill aims to restore respect for the beauty of traditional American culture. 

A 2020 poll from the National Civic Art Society found that 72% of American respondents prefer classical and traditional design for federal buildings. Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, said he is fully behind Banks' bill. 

"It is crucial that the design of federal buildings reflects the preferences of ordinary Americans — namely, that such buildings be beautiful, uplifting, and designed in a classical or traditional style.”
I am hoping that this bill might make progress, and even if not made law, might set the standard for how legislation can have an impact on the culture. 
Setting an example that will drive a wider American culture of beauty. 
On the whole, I believe that the culture is not created from the top-down, but from the bottom up. It is a pattern of how ordinary people interact and behave. So it is appropriate that a federal bill limits its attentions to the aspect of American architecture that it should properly be concerned with, that is federal architecture. This way, its influence beyond that is by example only. If people like what they see, they will be inspired to follow suit in the building design that they have an influence over. 
The Supreme Court building
Architecture for the people, not the elites 
This bill reflects a proper government concern for serving the people. If the views of ordinary people were taken into account, 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). A poll referred to by the drafters of the bill indicated that classical was the preferred style of the public and of 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 and culture, 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. 

A move that will encourage originality and creativity 
One argument that I am sure will be used against the bill is that it will stifle creativity. In fact, in my opinion, the opposite will happen. It will encourage a richer and more authentically American diversity of beautiful architecture than that produce by modernist architects.

As a rule, in art, if you define limits to creativity in one direction, creativity finds room for maneuver in other directions. Rather than being a prescription for sameness and sterility, it is exactly the opposite: a mandate for beautiful creativity and variety. 

History confirms this. 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 ancient Romans and Greeks. It quickly became its own distinct form of classicism known as Palladian architecture and in turn morphed into English Georgian and the American colonial style.

The Parthenon, Athens

Villa Rocca Pisani, Lonigo, 1576, designed by Palladio

Attingham House, Shropshire, England, 18th century

Memorial City Hall in Auburn, New York was built between 1929 and 1930 in the Colonial Revival style.

Conversely, when architects do not feel bound by any principles of design that traditionally were defined to impose order on what the architect does, the result is not variety, but bland monotony. The very attempts by architects to look different are what make everything the same. Modernist architecture from Dubai to Washington DC all looks pretty much the same and bears no mark of the culture of the place in which it sits.

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, who is God, as modernity has done, is to rely on the despair and isolation of fallen man, and this well runs dry very quickly. Looking to the beauty of the cosmos, which bears the thumbprint of the Crreator, and to God as the ideal of beauty, is to tap into infinite possibilities of beautiful design. 

Where is this? If you hadn’t actually been there you couldn’t discern from the style of architecture that it was Shanghai. Does anything look distinctly Chinese about this skyline to you?

Another example of how a traditional style inspired a new movement is the English architect AW Pugin, who was, ironically, reacting against the neo-classical architecture of the early 19th century, and set out to re-establish the Gothic (or as he called it ‘pointed’) style of architecture. The result was a distinct form of Gothic architecture that was subsequently adopted widely because of the power of its beauty. Examples are across the globe in local variations - in India and Russia, across Europe and the United States. The style was adoptefor example. It created some of the most iconic buildings in the world, for example, Big Ben and Tower Bridge.

In the US, we see, many wonderful churches and civic and institutional buildings, such as the Ivy League campuses. Here is Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University. 
Sterling Memorial Library, Yale
Accordingly, the likely result of this bill is the emergence of a new, American style or styles that simultaneously reflect the past and are a previously unimagined and unique 21st-century American style. These two principles are not mutually exclusive. 

Thank you, Mr Banks, for all your efforts.

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