Classical Architecture

Our government deserves to be represented by “classical” architecture, cities and people deserve to be surrounded by it, and Trump’s executive order encouraging its widespread use in the design of future government buildings will undoubtedly benefit the country and the architectural world greatly.

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By Jenny Chen

President Trump proposed a draft executive order on February 4, 2020, that, if enforced, would designate classical architecture as the preferred and default style of nearly all future public buildings in the United States. It would mandate all new federal courthouses, all federal public buildings in the capital region, and all other federal public buildings whose cost exceeds $50 million to adhere to stylistic regulation. The order has received extensive backlash from lovers and haters of modern architecture alike, but many amants of classical architectural styles—myself included—are rejoicing. Classical architecture has widespread positive benefits on our society, and is far more representative of our government and the values we stand for than nearly any other style; in spite of any drawbacks this order may have, with some care and precision, this will no doubt be a great step forward for the U.S.

Building classical architecture nearly always entails the use of stone as the primary material of construction, which is more expensive and often takes longer to construct than modern alternatives—this is its major flaw. In the long run, however, this “flaw” yields incredible long-term advantages: stone structures can last longer without repairs, require less routine maintenance, and are substantially more energy efficient—in short, you get what you pay for. Structures made of glass and other synthetic materials certainly have their place: they can be built rapidly and at cheap prices, a necessity for aspiring businesses in cutthroat markets such as those of New York City, where time is money. But this pay-off is short term. Ultimately, glass and metal structures are plagued by more difficulties and complications than they are worth. Building with stone is a long-term investment in the quality and beauty of a structure.

But this investment isn’t entirely personal; it has a profound impact on society as a whole. Classical architecture is significantly more well-liked than modern architecture—of the sites and monuments ranked by Americans in a poll by the American Institute of Architecture, virtually all of the top 100 were built pre-war. Many modern architectural works are adored by many, but despised by many more; while they profit off their novelty and the shock that their designs can impart on the viewer, classical architecture is designed to be admired for years to come. This beauty is one of the key factors in the prosperity of any city. Known as the “beauty premium,” a CityLab study shows that cities with heavy spending on infrastructure, abundant greenspaces, and, of course, architecture enjoyed by the general public are more fiscally competitive, attract more skilled and educated laborers, and hold happier residents.

Perhaps most important is the message we send with the architecture we build. Every building we construct is a deliberate expression of the societal values and culture that generations to come will judge us by—even the decision to regard our architecture with apathy. Architecture is capable of conveying complex emotions and ideas, and we are responsible for ensuring that the message it sends to those who view it is reflective of our values as a society. Our government and the buildings that house it should emanate ideals such as strength and stability, not the bleak totalitarianism of the brutalist structures that have invaded our country’s capital. Classical architecture, which as the order posits, “derives features from classical Greek and Roman architecture,” reminds us of the Greek democracy which inspired the thinking that brought about our nation, as well as the Roman might that any nation can only hope to one day achieve.

Trump’s order has been met with extensive backlash from fans and enemies of modernism alike. Modern architecture is often controversial, but several success stories are undeniable: the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., designed by David Adjaye, is a prime example of successful modern architecture. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Adjaye stated that he designed his structure with the concept of upward mobility in mind, wanting to depict African Americans as a people with a bright future, not a troubled past. The copper mesh surrounding his structure harkens back to the skilled black metalworkers of the south, and it incorporates West African artistic features. The design is intricate and evocative, and yet its modernist nature is critical.

At first glance, it seems Trump’s executive order would make the construction of unique, modernist buildings such as Adjaye’s impossible. However, the order makes specific provisions to ensure that all architecture that deserves to represent our government has a chance to. It specifies that, along with classical architecture, allowances for other “traditional architectural styles” such as Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish Colonial would be made, and that other styles would be allowed where it is conclusively proven that a different style is necessary. In the case of Adjaye’s work, West African patterns were critical to the design of his structure. Under the executive order, an exception would be made to allow a building of any style to be constructed given that its deviation from the new classical standard is justified—Adjaye’s included. Through this system, the individual architect’s freedom remains nearly untouched.

Of course, the executive order is not without fault. Restriction of artistic liberties is seldom a good idea, and more often than not results in the creation of architecture just as bland and soulless as that which the restriction endeavors to avoid. Though making exceptions for appropriate, non-classical architecture is a step in the right direction to ensure that this does not occur, the fact remains that the federal government must exercise extreme caution. To that end, it is vital that the government only hires architects who have extensive portfolios in classical design and who will surely uphold the artistic integrity of the style. Though the large majority of American colleges and universities exclusively teach modern principles of architectural design, there are several notable outliers, such as the University of Notre Dame and Yale University. There may not be as many classically trained architects as there are architects who specialize in modernism, but they exist, and it is imperative that they are the ones who will lead this new architectural movement. Otherwise, we risk producing cheap, vaguely classical designs to liminally meet the executive order’s standards, thereby tarnishing the reputation of classical architecture for years to come. Regardless, the drafting of this order signifies a great step forward for American architecture and society as a whole, and—so long as we are careful—will undoubtedly usher in a new era of revivalist architecture and beautiful cities.