The US President’s attempt to turn back the architectural clock in order to titillate right-wing constituencies speaks of a poisonous bravado, impelled by a conviction that he is untouchable and unstoppable, writes Catherine Slessor
Mark Twain once described the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a monumentally turgid lump of French Second Empire classicism, as ‘the ugliest building in America’. Within spitting distance of the White House, it was designed by Alfred B Mullett, who ended up killing himself during litigation.
For many years it was the world’s largest office building, with 566 rooms housing the executive of the US President. Twain was not alone in his disparagement. Harry S Truman described it as ‘the greatest monstrosity in America’, and historian Henry Adams called it Mullett’s ‘architectural infant asylum’.
Now, according to a draft executive order obtained by Architectural Record last week, current White House incumbent Donald Trump wants to ‘make federal buildings beautiful again’ by mandating a return to ‘the classical architectural style’. This will entail a wholesale re-framing of the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, originally issued in 1962, ‘to ensure that the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style’ for both new and upgraded federal buildings.
The nascent executive order describes the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as ‘beautiful and beloved’, while taking a malicious swipe at the General Service Administration’s Design Excellence Programme for its failure to re-integrate ‘our national values into Federal buildings’, which too often have been ‘influenced by Brutalism and Deconstructivism.’
In its sights, among others, are the Federal Building in San Francisco by Morphosis and Austin Courthouse by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, decent contemporary buildings in their day, now castigated for having ‘little aesthetic appeal.’
There has been justified uproar as American critics and commentators react to a diktat that would not seem out of place in 1930s Germany. Perhaps mindful of the ill judged and over hasty welcome it gave Trump on his accession in 2016, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has urged its members to send a pre-scripted email to him condemning the move. Though you sense the prospect of the presidential inbox being flooded with irate squibs from a profession he doubtless despises will not cut much ice with America’s gurning, perma-tanned imperator.
Trump’s record as a ‘patron’ of architecture was shaped by his rollercoaster career as a developer.
To him, buildings are simply extruded capital. His taste oscillates between a fondness for Developer’s Moderne Bland and Louis Quatorze Bling, epitomised by his enrobing of a 1950s Manhattan skyscraper in bronze cladding to transform it into the gleamingly phallic Trump International Hotel and Tower. He is said to find the White House on the pokey side, despite its soothing classical contours, preferring to decamp to his florid Floridian fastness of Mar-a-Lago at every opportunity.
More insidious than Trump’s stuttering stylistic forays were his vilification of minorities (repeatedly accused of discrimination against African-American tenants) and casual vandalism of historic building fabric. His experience as a developer was formative, however, in that it taught him he could get away with anything.
This mindset is now hardwired into the national political sphere, where he feels at liberty to shrug off impeachment and barrel on triumphantly to a second term. Cavorting around his Domus Aurea filled with shits and sycophants, he is the Nero de nos jours.
Trump’s attempt to turn back the architectural clock in order to titillate right-wing constituencies speaks of a poisonous bravado, impelled by a conviction that he is untouchable and unstoppable. Classicism is merely caught in the crossfire, its fetishisation as a comfort blanket for dictators of all stripes and their cronies a dismaying recurrence throughout history.
Beyond the terrain of style wars, there are bigger battles to be fought. It should not need saying that Trump and all he stands for require to be resisted. His antediluvian views on architecture are just the tip of the iceberg.