Neoclassical architecture isn't a solution in of itself
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went viral over the weekend with an Instagram video in which she name-checked ‘famed economist Milton Keynes’ for his predictions about 15-hour working weeks.
Aside from giving the US right a chance to point and snigger, how to explain to North American friends what is funny about her gaffe? Milton Keynes is widely mocked in the UK as a byword for its dull grid design, car-centrism, strip malls and sprawling blandness.
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But grid streets, car-centrism, strip malls and bland sprawl are standard characteristics of all but the oldest American towns and cities. Indeed one North American of my acquaintance admitted that Milton Keynes was the only British town she had ever visited which made sense to her. (She liked it so much she moved there.)
Elsewhere last week in the politics of buildings, Architectural Record caused a stir with its revelation that the Donald is threatening to force American architects to build new federal buildings only in a neoclassical style, rather than – as current regulations stipulate – simply to use designs that ‘provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government’. Critics lost no time in citing this as yet more evidence of the orange man’s slide toward fascism, or as a white supremacist dog-whistle “aimed at the heart of modernism and diversity”.
Classicism is hardly the only architectural style to be associated with authoritarian regimes. Neither Soviet brutalism nor the postmodern monuments of state-capitalist China seem interested in challenging colonialism or promoting diversity so much as advertising the power of their respective regimes. It may be fairer to challenge Trump’s call for a return to beauty for its superficiality.
In buildings constructed before the age of steel girders and reinforced concrete, pleasing decorative features such as brick arches over windows are as much a structural necessity as an aesthetic choice. But modern structural engineering has removed the need for these necessities, meaning their addition becomes an optional aesthetic extra. Thus unless Trump were to ban modern construction methods in federal buildings, stipulating neoclassical style is little more than an aesthetic gloss over a postmodern engineering approach to the built environment that has no need to be constrained by place, limits or context.
And it is this lack of constraint that produces the architectural placelessness that is so alienating.
Focusing on large-scale buildings also misses the level at which placeless urbanism hits home (pun intended). There has for some time been a push within American conservatism for a renewed interest in human-scale urban design, but Trump’s executive order (if it happens) takes no interest in the small-scale business of town planning.
Thus, while it has already proved a satisfying means of trolling the usual black polonecks on each coast, Trump’s gestures at classicism are little more than a feint. By focusing only on superficial aesthetic features, and ignoring the human, Trump’s edict would merely fan the culture war while leaving intact the rationalist urbanism that produces the Milton Keyneses of the world and immiserates the ordinary people for whom he claims to speak.