Donald Trump has 1 good design idea
President Trump has bad taste, as anyone who's seen images of his personal penthouse in New York City well knows. Designed in the style of Louis XIV (the "L'état, c'est moi" king, of course), it's festooned in 24K gold and marble — extremely expensive but remarkably tacky. His real estate portfolio is dominated by towers whose only distinction is the extent of their branding. The beautiful places he owns, like the Washington hotel, his Turnberry resort in Scotland, and Mar-a-Lago, owe their grace to architects long dead.
But Trump has one good design idea: his plan, as revealed in a draft executive order obtained by Architectural Record, that "classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style" in new and retrofitted federal buildings. Traditional regional styles, like Spanish colonial architecture in Florida, will be permitted as well, while discordant modern styles like brutalism and deconstructivism would be discouraged.
Out with bland yet overbearing monstrosities like the buildings that house the Departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services. In with more ornamented, symmetrical styles, like that of the National Archives or the Cannon House Office Building. Out with bare concrete, and in with beauty.
I am far from a reflexive architecture anti-modernist. While I do tend to favor older, more vernacular styles, I like the Dwell look, too, and I'm unopposed to skyscrapers — provided they're more in the vein of the Chrysler Building than, say, Trump Tower.
Modern isn't bad, and big isn't (always) bad, but when the two are combined something often goes wrong. Perhaps nowhere is that truer than in architecture of the state, like those departmental buildings, where there is no market pressure toward even a modicum of attractiveness and normal human feeling. Too many federal buildings are heavy and oppressive, boring but disconcerting. Insofar as they are "honest," as advocates like to claim, the truth they are telling is that these departments are mechanistic bureaucracies which will confuse, surveil, and intimidate you.
Have you ever walked a block along one of these buildings? There is absolutely nothing of interest on their monotonous façades. You end up instinctively averting your eyes to study instead the peanut carts and t-shirt stands that dot the sidewalk, which at least show signs of life.
The worst room I've ever experienced was a U.S. Customs checkpoint. It was large and low-ceilinged, windowless, just a little bit too hot, festooned with security cameras and seething with human frustration. This was a room designed — whether intentionally or by unimaginative default I cannot say — to produce a feeling of powerlessness. By the time I reached the counter, I was willing to do or say just about anything if they would only let me out.
"The fact is contemporary architecture gives most regular humans the heebie-jeebies," Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson explain in their tour-de-force on the subject at Current Affairs. Asked to name their favorite pieces of American architecture, Americans' minds overwhelmingly turn to the prewar period. "And when it comes to architecture, as distinct from most other forms of art, it isn't enough to simply shrug and say that personal preferences differ," Rennix and Robinson argue. "[W]here public buildings are concerned, or public spaces which have an existing character and historic resonances for the people who live there, to impose an architect's eccentric will on the masses, and force them to spend their days in spaces they find ugly and unsettling, is actually oppressive and cruel."
We can't control what style private builders choose, but federal buildings should be beautiful if they can, and classical and regional architecture styles have a beauty brutalism lacks. The Trump administration has the right idea here — but there are two things which worry me about this executive order.
First is the possibility of negative politicization of the very architectural styles the order seeks to promote. The Current Affairs story, written from a staunchly left-wing perspective, bemoans the left's tendency to defend dreary, dehumanizing architecture against conservative calls for more humane, artisanal public structures. Trump's order, crassly titled "Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again," could indelibly link classical and regional styles to our historically unpopular president.
Worse yet would be a perception that this stylistic shift is inspired by racism: Some white supremacists have taken up the cause of European architectural traditionalism — as if it isn't matched by incredible works like the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, Bhutan's Tiger's Nest Monastery, or the monolithic churches of Ethiopia — and the Nazis developed a distinctly fascist neoclassicalism. Prioritizing regional styles like the Afro-Caribbean influences in historic New Orleans architecture or the Pueblo Revival style of the Southwest over generic classicism would help rebut any such associations.
Second, contemporary takes on older styles, if executed with inferior materials and craftsmanship, end up a worse visual insult than newer styles done well. (This is much of what's wrong with McMansions, for example.) Chintzy, sentimental pastiche — the Disneyfication of federal architecture — is a real risk.
Here again leaning into regional styles would be wiser than slapping Greek columns all over the country. In Los Angeles, get inspiration from local jewels like the Eastern Columbia Building or Castle Green. In Boston, take a cue from the brick of Fenway Park or the Massachusetts State House. In Miami, see Freedom Tower or any number of colorful, inviting art deco constructions. These are all buildings that suit and beautify their locations. Why can't federal buildings do the same?