Trump’s architectural decree is half right
The best way back to beautiful buildings is to involve the public
Those of you who follow the torrent of mutual mistrust that is American politics may recall an architectural controversy that briefly broke upon the wider maelstrom back in February. The US press reported a leaked draft White House Executive Order to re-orient federal architecture in a classical and traditional direction. American architects rushed to their barricades denouncing ‘political control over political buildings.’ Some complained that the order was fascist and, indeed, that any preference for classical architecture was totalitarian. Architecture had moved centre stage in America’s extreme culture wars.
The Executive Order is back in the news because President Trump has just signed it. Does it matter? The American Institute of Architects, the US equivalent of RIBA, has opposed it “unequivocally” and vowed “to work with President-elect Biden to reverse it.” Maybe the order, like President Trump, only has weeks remaining before it is removed. However, it raises the question: how should the state commission public buildings? Who should make decisions? On what criteria?
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First of all, to clear away some arrant nonsense. Architectural styles are not in themselves political. I know defenders of traditional architecture who are left wing, right wing and every wing in between. Ditto, modernism (soulless socialism or corporatism depending on your taste). Or liking cycling (low tax self-determinism versus anti-establishment counter-culture). Greek and Roman society relied on slave labour; medieval society had serfs; Le Corbusier sought work from the quisling French Vichy regime. But that does not mean that anyone who likes a Doric column, a pointed arch or a piloti supports slavery, feudalism or fascism. Different people at different times may choose to imbue certain styles with certain meanings but those meanings are not set in stone. It is the people, not the buildings, which are political.
Canard number two is that only fascist states seek to set out what “style” public buildings should be. Again, demonstrably nonsense. Arguably, Britain’s most famous public building and a symbol of democracy around the world, the Houses of Parliament, was a response to a competition that quite explicitly demanded Gothic or Elizabethan style. It is perfectly reasonable for publicly elected politicians and their servants to set a clear brief for the use of public funds. They have done so for thousands of years. What is novel is abdicating that responsibility purely to designers who tend to have different tastes than the general public. As polling has shown, the results have generally not been popular with the US public who overwhelmingly prefer traditional design (by 72% to 28%).
Despite all this, I confess I am a little nervous about the Executive Order’s stated preference for “traditional and classical” architecture – and not just because I assume Biden will reverse it, potentially starting an architectural style ping pong which cannot be healthy. In a modern culture which is more transparent, less deferential, more democratic than the England of the 1830s which commissioned Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, we need to involve, and be seen to involve, the public in individual decisions.
The Executive Order is on firmer ground when it states that the US federal government “should seek input from the future users of applicable public buildings and the general public in the community where such buildings will be located before selecting an architectural firm or design style.” I would go further on this point, and not bother having a preferred style. Public buildings should be worthy of their civic purpose, popular and beautiful. To achieve this today needs consent. In any country, the public sector procurement process for new buildings or public realm schemes should state clearly that beauty and popularity with the local population are key elements of the design brief; involve local people in the design through workshops and visual preference polling on design preferences; and seek to make use of the emerging ‘science of place’ on the likely impact of different design approaches on metrics such as resident happiness, air quality and sustainable transport.
Around the world, many of the worst buildings of the last two generations have been commissioned ostensibly on the public’s behalf. However, they have ignored the public and fetishised the fashionable over the healthy, and the gargantuan over the humane. That must change. The best way is by asking the public what they like and where they feel at home.
Nicholas Boys Smith is director of Create Streets and was co-chair of the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.
Yes to beautiful elegant buildings. Regrettably we live in a time where too few even recognise those qualities in anything.
It’s the ugly and the grotesque, whether it’s in art or architecture, that are favoured.
The London skyline, what a mess it is from the 1980s on. Outlandish is the architectural style, and it is only fun as novelty, and that is fleeting.
I could not agree more with Trump on this, Dignity, beauty, function, in classical Western architecture is what the Government should use.
Look at the Salford, Scottish, Cardiff, BBC Hq, terrible! Architecture is very political. No one but a Liberal/Lefty loon would have signed off on these White Elephants with silly interiors and concepts of use in ludicrous exteriors.
Although as the article points out most of the most famous historical buildings in Britain are not classical, from Westminster Abbey, to Westminster Palace and Windsor Castle or many of the most famous Gothic colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Should these buildings be torn down and replaced with generic mock-Roman buildings?
Where they authentically express the living spiritual heights of their cultural moment they are art, …like Stonehenge, Winchester Cathedral. Parliament along with all the theme park fantasy kingdom (Tower of London, most of Windsor Castle, …) touristy kitsch should be razed.
The tower of London was built in the 13th century. It’s nice to know the man accusing others of being philistines wants to destroy the medieval fabric of the country.
And how is the classical architecture of Washington DC not touristy kitsch by this standard? It hardly seems to reflect ‘authenticity’ from what I saw there, unless you really believe the guff that the USA is somehow the Roman republic reborn – indeed Pugin saw it as the height of inauthenticity. The Palace of Westminster probably reflects British national spirit as much as the faux Roman columns reflect the fakeness and disloyalty of the Republic born in an act of narcissistic treachery to its rightful ruler – that is the USA.
I agree, Washington is offensive; but, it’s not Disneyworld kitsch (that’s Williamsburg). The Roman architecture too obviously affected the cultural power fetish of imperial Rome; the pantheon, mindless marble imposition on the credulous.
The masterpieces of Modern are such as I K Brunel’s bridges and Gustave Eifel’s cathedral tower -the spirit of Pascal, Newton, & co.. The NY skyscraper and the stalin-esque apartment towers express mass production, the tedious repetition of identical geometric forms, the crass pusillanimity of the bourgeois.
The archetypal trope of the Postmodern is probably the pixel, the cold dead end of Art.
The truly arrogant attitude typical of all too many architectural theorists and practitioners.. What about what we as the public might want..? Horrible tourists, I am a traveller….
Why? Hasn’t most architecture always been pastiche to some extent? Stone columns pretenidng to be wood etc etc.
One of the great fallacies of modernism, form follows function… and that’s it!?
1. I agree, that is a fallacy. Form & function are subsidiary functions, …along with climate, region, materials, craftsmen, etc. But for bourgeois culture the tyranny of function, money-making, obtains and destroys art, along with everything else worth the having.
2. Art in general always creates within and evolves out of its own tradition. Wooden structural elements were the precursors of stone columns and lintels, which in turn preceded iron and steel. And it is only “pretending” in the sense of “Transcending”, –raising the creation out of the flux of decay.
3. The “public” prefers football to symphonies.
Low brow and high brow are both “the public”; but, sadly, the latter is overwhelmed by the oppressive monopoly of the former.
Architecture, like everything else, is ideological. The cold, sterile, impersonal, outscale, utilitarian glass, steel and cement of bourgeois structures, deafeningly bespeaks naked power in all its brutal monstrosity, the phallic towers of power, however tour de force. Its political subsidiary is then only different in that it is ordered to express a mythical traditionalism. Both are repulsive philistinism.
In contrast, the contemporary zeitgeist is supremely ironic, almost a disappearing.
“Architecture, like everything else, is ideological”
No, it is not…
Love, friendship, courage…?
You’re talking Christianity, which was supremely the pre-modern ideology. Structurally, “religion” and “ideology”, express the same concept, –faith in a gospel, if you will.
I do like this article. I’m glad to see such honest reasoning in the person chairing BBBC. The language of buildings means that innovation has its place (There is plenty of beautiful brutalist and general modernist architecture) and so does classicism, they speak to us in certain ways and neo-classicism speaks to grandiosity that I believe most people would want in their landmark Government buildings.
For every article by a talented architect decrying the Planning system for curtailing their freedom to create new forms, I think of the miserable tasteless pastiches of the type of work that they are supporting that has been dumped on the public realm on the cheap. I love a cartoon I read once which marks my view of designers – “Architect- “Our design respects principles of good place-making and respond to the street scene”, “Where’s the site?” “Architect – We have a few locations penciled in”. Don’t let constraints or public perception hamper you meeting your brief!
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