Be careful what you ask for
By Scott Sumner
The Trump administration is revising the criteria for deciding on the style of new government buildings. Henceforth, “classical” styles will be favored. I believe the term “classical” is actually a sort of catch-all for “traditional architectural styles that are grand and impressive.” For instance, the NYT reports:
The draft order praises the Washington building now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as “beautiful and beloved.” Harry Truman called it the “greatest monstrosity in America.” Suffice it to say that taste changes and style, by definition, is the most superficial criterion for evaluating architecture.
The building is actually French Second Empire, not classical:
In defense of the Trump administration, I think you can make an argument that many of the great art museums and train stations of the 1800s and early 1900s (often Beaux-Arts style) still hold up well. Modern architecture is a mixed bag, with some great works and also some duds. But I see several problems with trying to force a single style on government contracts:
1. Architects might try to “game the system”. Imagine that the regulations call for “classical elements”. Does this Japanese building qualify?
Before commenters jump all over me, I do realize that nothing that goofy is likely to be built here. But a portion of the “postmodernism” movement in architecture consisted of adding classical elements to modern buildings, often in what is now regarded as a rather tacky fashion. Consider the famous AT&T building designed by Philip Johnson:
So one unintentional side effect is the use of gimmicks, which later look foolish.
2. A second problem is that quality might suffer. Great artists (and architects are artists) are driven to produce innovative styles. They hate to copy the greats of the past. If you ask people to write Beethoven-style symphonies, or paint Rembrandt-style paintings, they won’t be as good as the originals. Rather you will have second-rate artists produce schlocky works of art.
Imagine trying to recreate a Taj Mahal-style building. I can’t resist this photo of a casino produced by a name you might recognize:
I think even President Trump supporters might question his claim that this casino was “the eighth wonder of the world.”
3. There’s something kind of weird about the current debate between “classical” and “modern” architecture in government buildings. It ignores a third option—America’s own contribution to the field of architecture, including the work of Richardson, Sullivan and especially Wright. This work spans the period from 1870 to 1960, and includes many famous innovations such as the “prairie style”. Why wouldn’t patriotic Americans want to promote our own innovators, our own indigenous style? Do conservatives really want to favor French Second Empire over the work of Wright, who’s like someone out of an Ayn Rand novel? (Read Ross Douthat on decadence). Here’s Wright’s Marin County Civic Center:
Let’s assume that some public buildings are built to last longer than private buildings. Let’s also assume that “the public” is the consumer of public buildings, and that the average American has taste that is slightly more conservative that the average wealthy private sector builder (but not Trump!) In that case, you might want to skew the style selection process a bit away from untested and edgy designs. Let private or non-for-profits institutions first experiment with the latest from Rem Koolhaus or Frank Gehry, and then adopt them in public buildings if they are viewed as successful.
4. There’s a difference between modern architecture that’s “difficult” and modern architecture that’s “pretty”. I have mixed feelings about the work of Santiago Calatrava, but it does seem that the public likes this sort of graceful modern architecture:
Like many nostalgic types, I mourn the loss of NYC’s Penn Station:
But would putting a schlocky mock Penn Station above NYC’s new transit hub actually have met our modern needs better than this:
Ross Douthat is much more conservative than I am, but even he says we need to stop wallowing in the past and charge boldly into the future. I don’t think the new regulations are appropriate for a groundbreaking country like America.