Column: How should Trump make federal architecture great? By ignoring the ideologues who speak for classicism and modernism.
Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune Architecture Critic
Feb 11, 2020 | 2:41 PM
Casting a critical eye at banks that resembled Roman temples, the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote nearly 120 years ago that their bankers should wear togas and sandals, and conduct business in Latin.
To Sullivan, Roman Revival banks were architectural fakes, their columns and pediments mere drapery that had nothing to do with their underlying construction.
Yet today, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to stroll down ChicagoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s LaSalle Street financial canyon without admiring the banking temples along the street. They may be stage-set architecture, but theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re stage sets for the ages Ã¢â‚¬â€� their proportions, materials and details powerfully communicating a message of financial stability.
I bring up Sullivan and the LaSalle Street banks because the debate over a profoundly misguided proposal, which would establish classical architecture as the preferred style for many federal buildings, already is devolving into a superficial style war Ã¢â‚¬â€� a new front in the culture wars roiling Donald TrumpÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s America.
Predictably, left-leaning opponents of the plan are portraying classicism as reactionary, arguing, as a Chicago Sun-Times editorial did last week, that the plan would take us Ã¢â‚¬Å“back into a bygone era when women wore bonnets, men wore tricorn hats and the only acceptable design for a federal building was a knockoff of a classical Greek or Roman structure.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
The view from the right is equally warped. Writing on the City Journal website, the critic Catesby Leigh opines that modernist federal buildings fail to Ã¢â‚¬Å“speak to the aspirations of ordinary citizens.Ã¢â‚¬Â� How does he know?
Chicagoans rightly admire the modernist design of Ludwig Mies van der RoheÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Federal Center, but Leigh puts down its handsomely proportioned, elegantly detailed high-rises as Ã¢â‚¬Å“boxy,Ã¢â‚¬Â� trashes its transparent low-rise post office as Ã¢â‚¬Å“squatÃ¢â‚¬Â� and deems the entire complex, including the vibrant plaza highlighted by Alexander CalderÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s bright red Flamingo sculpture, as Ã¢â‚¬Å“not exactly a tour de force.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
The people who live here know better.
HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the point: Style wars invariably fail to address the underlying characteristics Ã¢â‚¬â€� including function, security, sustainability, accessibility and compatibility with a specific site, climate and culture Ã¢â‚¬â€� that render architecture and urban design worthy or not. No style, classical or modernist, has a monopoly on quality. The problem with the proposal in question isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t classicism. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the imposition of classicism and other traditional styles from a single central authority, a move that would undercut the very democratic ideals that classicism is supposed to represent.
As the Chicago-based Society of Architectural Historians and other organizations wrote in a letter to Trump Monday, joining opponents of the plan such as the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Ã¢â‚¬Å“we ... remain convinced that the dictation of style Ã¢â‚¬â€œ any style Ã¢â‚¬â€œ is not the path to excellence in civic architectureÃ¢â‚¬Â�
The controversial plan, a draft executive order now circulating in the Trump White House, would overturn guiding principles for federal architecture Ã¢â‚¬â€� courthouses, agency headquarters and the like Ã¢â‚¬â€� that have been in place since 1962. The forward-thinking principles have been a touchstone for the General Services Administration, the agency that commissions federal buildings. In 1994, it created a Design Excellence program that has tapped the talents of such Chicago architects as Carol Ross Barney, designer of the Oklahoma City federal building that replaced the one that a truck bomb destroyed in 1995, killing 168 people.
Written by future New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the principles, critically, are neutral on the question of style.
Federal buildings Ã¢â‚¬Å“must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government," the principles say. But they add, pointedly, that Ã¢â‚¬Å“the development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
In other words, officials styles were for the totalitarian governments American was fighting during the Cold War era of the 1960s. The principles, in contrast, equated democratic freedom with architectural pluralism: Federal buildings should reflect regional architectural traditions and, by implication, the diverse character of the American people.
That is very different from the stereotype of one-size-fits-all, steel-and-glass modernism.
The organization spearheading the draft executive order is a tiny Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the National Civic Art Society. In 2012, Philanthropy magazine reported that its chief funder was Chicago investor Richard H. Driehaus, sponsor of the Driehaus Prize for traditional and classical architecture.
Anne Lazar, executive director of Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, confirmed Tuesday that personal contributions from Driehaus to the group are ongoing, but she declined to answer what Driehaus thinks of the draft executive order, which carries a title, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again," that riffs on TrumpÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s slogan to Ã¢â‚¬Å“Make America Great Again.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
The National Civic Art SocietyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s position, however, is quite clear: Modernism is a plague on our collective house, a rupture with the evolving classical tradition that began with the Greeks and Romans; flowered during the Renaissance via such masters as ItalyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Andrea Palladio; informed the Founding Fathers, especially the architect-President Thomas Jefferson; and inspired the celebrated Ã¢â‚¬Å“White CityÃ¢â‚¬Â� ensemble of ChicagoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s WorldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The public finds it ugly, strange, and off-putting,Ã¢â‚¬Â� the group says of modern architecture on its website. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It has created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
Wiser classicists know better: Modernism, now well over a century old, is, like it or not, a part of history whose impact cannot be wished away. And while modernismÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s glassy, transparent volumes boldly departed from the solid masses of classically-inspired buildings, its masters, like Mies, simultaneously learned from that tradition and enlivened it by placing their buildings and urban spaces in vivid counterpoint to it. A sterling Chicago example, chiefly designed by Jacques Brownson, is the Richard J. Daley Center, the muscular courts high-rise whose bridgelike beams relate directly in scale to the monumental Corinthian columns of the City Hall-County Building across Clark Street.
There are few better examples of what the Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully called Ã¢â‚¬Å“a continuing dialogue between the generations which creates an environment developing across time.Ã¢â‚¬Â�
That development doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t degrade our cities. It enlivens them. We would all be poorer without it.
Both sides in the federal buildings debate need to take off ideological blinders. There is nothing inherently regressive about a classical federal building, just as there is nothing inherently progressive about a modernist one. The spectrum of classical design ranges from the transcendent excellence of the Parthenon to the megalomaniacal vision for post-World War II Berlin drawn up by HitlerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s architect, Albert Speer. So, too, with modernism, which spans the gamut from the rigor and refinement of the Mies-designed Federal Center to the coarse concrete of the Brutalist FBI headquarters on WashingtonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Pennsylvania Avenue, by Chicago architects C.F. Murphy Associates.
I do not quiver at a trend noted by a New York Times editorial on this subject that the General Services Administration has begun to construct more buildings in a classical style. If local communities and their leaders choose in coordination with the federal government to build in that style, and it can serve functional needs in a reasonably economical way, those communities and leaders have every right to do so. The point is the choice, and maintaining the ability to choose.
While itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true that the federal government once set aesthetic standards for federal buildings, opting for a streamlined version of Art Deco during the Depression, the nation has changed markedly since then. We are more diverse, not just demographically but architecturally. Pluralism reigns, just as our national motto (Ã¢â‚¬Å“E pluribus unum,Ã¢â‚¬Â� Latin for Ã¢â‚¬Å“Out of many, oneÃ¢â‚¬Â�) suggests it should. Our buildings should reflect that diversity, not mask it.
Blair Kamin has been the Chicago Tribune's architecture critic since 1992. A graduate of Amherst College and the Yale School of Architecture, he was a fellow at Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Kamin lectures widely and appears on television and radio. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.