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Great America

Toward a New (Old) Architecture

Architects should celebrate the beauty and the betterment of the human condition through the built environment, and not condemn it with cynical theory and progressive buzzwords that they think will win a commission.


- February 12th, 2020
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The New York Times has done it again. President Trump, a literal Hitler, is seeking his very own Albert Speer to bulldoze the FBI building, shatter I.M. Pei’s East Building at the National Gallery of Art, re-clad the African American Museum, and anything else he considers “not MAGA certified.”

The truth is usually much different than the reign of terror the Times is apt to predict, however.

Architectural Record, a monthly magazine that used to be the official publication of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), acquired a draft of a presidential executive order, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” which is meant to re-establish guidelines in the design of new public federal government buildings that cost over $50 million. The new guidelines are supposed to favor the classical style of architectural design. The mere mention of this has brought the predictable comparisons of Trump to a dictator, despite the fact that “MFBBA” is a draft (“Deliberative/pre-decisional/privileged” being typed across the top of each of the seven pages) and was written by a private group called the National Civic Art Society.

The “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” were drafted originally in 1962 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan to encourage a move away from traditional (neoclassical style) government buildings and encourage a more forward-thinking adoption of modern architecture, then in full bloom. One of the principles’ more famous statements is, “The design must flow from the architectural profession to the government. And not vice versa.” A very good intention indeed, if it’s actually followed.

It would appear that this new draft is attempting to amend these principles to avoid the clear problem of creating ugly and uninviting federal public buildings. The call is to encourage and favor neoclassical designs for public federal buildings and discourage or ban outright any design which is Brutalist or Deconstructivist, both of which are forms of expression from later modernism. These buildings are considered to have aged poorly, and are often associated with inhumanly scaled proportions and soulless alienating anti-contextual massing.

An Imperfect Proposal

On the other hand, there are many problems with the draft of MFBBA. The prescriptive element favoring design in the classical style or something derivative invites images of the early postmodern nightmares of the ’80s, and the “shall not be used” language calling for the banishment of Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles opens the door for the subjective and summary rejection of anything that “looks modern.”

The thrust of MFBBA draft also contains an element not frequently mentioned by the critics in that it explicitly excludes architecture professionals and critics as well as other members of the art world from having a say in the final review. It would be like Rush Limbaugh suddenly saying “it’s open-line Friday every day! Rank amateurs and thrill-seekers across the fruited plain come here! You tell me what to talk about! We’re going to design the latest federal building!” One can see how this would infuriate the experts in the profession. This very same profession, however, has marginalized itself increasingly by its own arrogance, virtuosic pomposity, and disregard for the end-user. In other words, they forget how hard they’ve been asking for this reaction.

The generative inception of Moynihan’s guiding principles was for the redevelopment of Pennsylvania Avenue, then viewed by President Kennedy to be in deplorable condition. Most of the area was to be demolished in favor of buildings that would match the newly proposed FBI headquarters.

If the term “urban renewal” comes to mind when hearing about this grand-scale plan, you wouldn’t be far from the truth. Government officials at the time were enacting megalomaniacal takeovers all over the country to re-house the poor: demolishing established “slum” neighborhoods in favor of concrete high-rises, many of which met their demise shortly thereafter due to the architects’ complete lack of understanding about the finer details of urban planning and neighborhood dynamics. The designs ended up encouraging crime and creating housing nightmares that were far worse than the slums they replaced.

No More Bulky, Uninviting Bunkers

Fortunately, the realized displacement of existing Pennsylvania Avenue ended up not being as totalitarian as these other plans, due largely to the ensuing planning, funding, and implementation disaster that became the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building.  What was originally envisioned to be a light, transparent, and welcoming pinnacle of modern design got bum-steered by the future tenants (the FBI) who, through constant meddling, changed the design into what we see today: a bulky, uninviting bunker whose crumbling façade looks more like something from 1989 East Germany than from the United States of America. Some help the “Guiding Principles” were in that plan!

It is clear that Moynihan’s principles did not achieve their well-intentioned goal, but to rework them in such a manner as to prescribe preferred styles and reject undesirable styles is also too simplistic. The “Guiding Principles” are just that—an attempt by a well-meaning government official to better the built environment by fostering  “best practices.” They do not, as thoughtless critics have suggested, prescribe a nationalist style.

But too often, such statements of broad “Guiding Principles” are used to the exact opposite of their expressed intention. Then what emerges is something like the FBI headquarters, which then divides by cellular mitosis (read: bureaucratic protocol), to take over the entire nation as symbolic of a government that has forgotten the people it was founded to serve and not vice versa. We must not, in our pursuit for more beautiful federal architecture, throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Many political analysts are commenting on the leaked draft executive order. Tucker Carlson, for instance, pointed out the psychological issues in how ugly spaces affect us, and implicitly anyway, he supports the ban on modern architecture, which he simply calls “garbage.”

But perhaps Carlson is missing something here. Yes, our country should be beautiful but beauty does not blossom out of coercion or from a series of prohibitions. Inasmuch as there are many examples of Brutalist and Deconstructivist design that are nihilistic and downright ugly, there are also many instances of modernism done well and beautifully.

Where Modern Design Works

Such an example is the Finnish-born American architect Eero Saarinen, who was one of the finest architects in modern history and who intimately understood the relationship of architect to client. Solely responsible for designs such as St. Louis Arch, TWA Terminal at JFK airport, and Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale University, Saarinen combined form and function like no other architect in America. He was a true American visionary, for whom relationality (whether between architect and client, or human being and architectural space) greatly mattered. Surely, this is evidence that one doesn’t have to rely purely on classical design in order to create a space that is welcoming to people.

Saarinen’s candor and ability to draw his clients’ needs to the forefront resulted in some of America’s best examples of modernist design and many rightly remain protected historic landmarks still in use by their clients. He was savaged in his day for not strictly adhering to modern architectural dictates and creating, of all sins, a “style for the job.” He had a restrained, more rectilinear modern approach that he used for corporate offices and administration buildings, and a sinuous, enthusiastic sculptural style used for monuments, airports and sports facilities. Sometimes he even combined the two if the program dictated it.

The fact that Saarinen, who died at the young age of 51 (just a year before Moynihan’s “Guiding Principles” were written), has not been taken seriously by the architectural establishment until more recently, indicates the problem of the disconnect between the critic and the public.

And the fact that this draft order apparently has been in existence for over a year and has yet to reach President Trump’s desk is also noteworthy. Most likely, that means it is not ready for prime time and that we are being fed a narrative to generate outrage and bad press for the president.

Sure, the draft provides food for thought, and the AIA and most other vocal critics of the draft were correct to encourage President Trump not to sign it.  Yet I find it hard to believe that a man who has worked his entire professional life building structures meant to lift up and inspire those who use them—the man who, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, wanted to see Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center twin towers rebuilt exactly as they were—would want to discourage a style of architecture he clearly likes and regularly employs in favor of a ponderous and expensive vocabulary unfairly associated with national socialism.

More Bad Faith from the Elite

To intentionally misunderstand and pervert President Trump’s intentions of making America great again is the role of the liberal anti-American media establishment. The problem of ugly modern (and postmodern) federal buildings is exacerbated by an entrenched elite of critics who prefer the architectural anonymity of bland, uninspiring buildings that only pay lip service to the people they are purportedly designed to serve. They are the swamp of the built environment and I have no doubt that President Trump intends to drain this swamp.

At the same time, analysts like Tucker Carlson should not resort to dismissing modernism as a bunch of “garbage.” He may be correct that most modern government buildings are a “psychic” drain on people as well as unpleasant to look at, but to support a ban on style in response to that fact is downright tyrannical. A change in our environment must happen organically and coercion cannot and should not be part of artistic and innovative expression.

When President Trump does rework the “Guiding Principles,” I have no doubt that the goal and result will be to foster the creativity, boldness, forward-thinking, and potential we saw in Saarinen’s work and now find in the minds and hearts of many new American architects.

As architects, we should celebrate the beauty and the betterment of the human condition through the built environment, and not condemn it with cynical theory and progressive buzzwords that we think will win us a commission. This draft is just that: a draft, a study model, a sketch. It is my hope that when any directive emerges in its final form, it will be nothing like the totalitarian model so feared by my colleagues and contain the necessary assurance that design does, in fact, “flow from the architectural profession to the government. And not vice versa.”

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