The Regression of Beautification
In the final months of what has been just short of a tyrannical reign in office, the Trump administration penned an ‘executive order’ regarding federal architecture. Future governmental buildings in the US will now need to be “beautiful” as described by the President himself. The ‘beauty’ referred to here connotes the neoclassical architectural idiom, abundant in the most recognisable administrative and political buildings such as the White House, the Treasury and the U.S. Capitol. Shifting from an architectural impetus of innovation and sustainability to one of façade splendour encapsulates the regressive steps taken by this office. While crowd pleasing, neoclassicism does not solve the wider issues of American culture and society. Blind to the potential of progressive architecture, building replicas of the architecture of authority affirms a clueless conservatism fatal to any discipline.
Stemming from the ‘city beautiful’ movement in the early 20th Century, the neoclassical edifices prevalent in the US capital can be understood as modernity’s equivalent to present day gentrification. Architecture and city planning converged in cities like Washington D.C to knock down inner city ‘decay’ in order to ‘beautify’ downtown centres in a Hausmann-like recto-linear grid with boulevards, gardens and monuments. The beautification employed then and advocated now revolve around the neoclassical mode, an idiom that revived the architectural philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, one of rationalism and order. Western academia’s high-point of not only architecture but democracy, classicism presents a traditional approach to architecture away from frivolous detail. This is the reason neoclassicism became such a hit in the late 19th Century, it repeated esteemed principles by rejecting inane ones like that of the curvilinear, ornate Rococo style. The decision to employ these same strategies today is questionable, seeing as the only reason for its employment is the presumed lack of ‘beauty’ in the Modernist and specifically Brutalist architecture.
Emerging on college and administrative campuses in the 1960s as an alternative to the international style, Brutalism would go on to be described as “art-for-arts-sake”, “ugly” and “lacking dignity” in this recent White House press release. Backed up with an onslaught of eclectic decontextualized quotes from likes of Christopher Wren to the City of Siena in 1309 that focused on beauty, the White House seems to be positioning themselves within a specific yet fictional lineage. The non-traditional, contemporary architecture supposedly didn’t “serve the American people” - only the architectural elite. This notion mirrors one attributive to the right wing pendulum shift the US took in 2016 whereby a questioning of the ‘elite’ and ‘authority’ (i.e. fake news) saw Trump rise in popularity in his unflinching rhetoric. When applied to architecture, the belief espoused by this camp purely alternates the tagline ‘make america great again’ to ‘make america beautiful again’. The notion that all a building must be is a) traditional and b) beautiful fundamentally restricts architecture from enabling social change, catering to current issues and reflective of contemporary values.
The reduction of this issue to ‘elite vs public’, ‘beautiful vs ugly’ eclipses the history of neo-classicism. The adoption of this idiom in contemporary architecture is much more significant than it may seem. The architecture served as a symbol of order and rationale, expanding on ancient Greek archetypes such as the Acropolis and Stoa. While their longevity serves as ample grounds for inspiration, the adage of ‘beauty’ complicates this. This order, at its core, regards architecture as discipline frozen in time, essentially instructing architects to relinquish their critical faculties in lieu of tracing paper - to get on with replication and stop with innovation. Architecture does not exist as a static traditionalism commemorating a specific time in history, it interprets societal beliefs and values and translates them into lived, three dimensional environments.
While Neoclassicism in a vacuum is not egregious, the idea that a hegemonic, authoritative, White idiom is the only thing that can be beautiful, is. It is perfectly acceptable, and common, to regard the mode as beautiful. The White House and the Jefferson Memorial were #2 and #4 on the American Institute of Architects 2007 ‘America’s Favourite Architecture’ list, respectively. What is difficult to accept however is the vehement rejection of modern architecture from a government on the sheer grounds of its supposed ugliness and non-acquiescence to a specific tradition. Personal discretion is natural when deciding what is beautiful - however the decision to generalise and solidify a clearly ambiguous, subjective and loaded term to one particular architecture is clearly problematic. Specifically countering notions of ornament and splendour, neoclassicism in its essence is the rejection of ‘beauty’ and ‘aesthetics’, thus rendering the desire to make buildings that are beautiful because they are neoclassical rather (oxy)moronic.
Even if the consensus holds up that brutalism is ugly and neoclassicism is beautiful, there are socio-political factors in promoting neoclassicism which must be discussed. Perceptually, symbolically and historically, this is an architecture of colonial, white authority. The insertion of values like ‘tradition’, ‘beauty’ and ‘severity’ serves this age-old insipid narrative of White European tradition as the apotheosis of culture and decorum. Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 which culminated in a built architectural environment showcasing innovation and tradition throughout the globe. Donned as ‘White City’ the space ultimately produced a racist fantasy landscape that inserted the prowess of the US as the inheritors of European advancements, the final step of class and beauty, while displaying African and Asian nations as savage and primitive as per the colonial convention. This was a White City in all sense of the words; the fair celebrated one of the most appalling colonists while promoting enlightenment-era racial progression myth making all in the landscape of grossly large neoclassical facades. Additionally, Neoclassicism was the preferred architectural idiom of the National Socialist Party; a ‘stripped-down neoclassicism’ provided the impression of ‘simplicity, uniformity and eternity’ desired by the dictatorship.
This isn’t to say that by building another neoclassical building the government is taking a maniacal fascist turn. However the parallels are striking and the convolution of beauty in the order certainly proves troubling. Recently completed structures like the outstanding National Museum of African American History by David Adjaye proves how history and modern culture can infuse in architecture to produce a truly meaningful building. The nihilistic attitude to the potential of architecture proves the parochial aloofness of this government. At a time when the arts have been hit hardest by the pandemic, this decision to reject any innovation is evidence of the little attention paid to the contribution this industry makes. There is no reputable architecture program in the US that would advise students to replicate the White House. Architecture, and frankly any other discipline, dies when protagonists are tasked with the reductive order to reproduce what is palatable and easily appreciated on a superficial level. This order renders architecture as nothing more than the completion of a pretty edifice. After all, there is no logical reason for a building that handles mundane federal taxation matters to resemble an eternal Greek temple.