Donald Trump wants to “make federal buildings beautiful again.”
In an executive order draft the Architectural Record reported on this week, Trump is intending to mandate “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style for new and upgraded federal buildings.”
According to the report, the order would require rewriting the 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.
On the surface, this may not appear to be any more than Trump’s affinity for a particular aesthetic until we consider Trump’s architectural proclivity as a real estate developer always favored standard steel-and-glass modernism, what author Peter York called “dictator chic.”
Yet it also begs the question: Why would the White House have any authority over Federal architecture?
New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote the 1962 Guiding Principles for President John F. Kennedy, explaining new buildings should reflect their current period and “an official style must be avoided.”
“Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice-versa. The government should be willing to pay some additional cost to avoid excessive uniformity in design of federal buildings.”
“Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.”
“A uniform style requirement dictated from above would not only be terrible for our built environment, it is authoritarian. It would run counter to our democratic ideals and would sever a critical connection between our civic institutions and our multifaceted society.”
Trump’s draft order does not specify what the “classical” style entails; it does explain, though, its inspiration is that of “republican Rome.”
There is a more invidious history behind the classical architectural style less analogous with Trump’s tastes and more analogous with his infatuation with authoritarian demagoguery.
While appealing, classical and neoclassical architecture have traditionally appealed to authoritarians.
As Slate reported on Friday:
“For centuries, autocrats, authoritarians, and dictators have held a fascination with using architecture as a political tool to glorify their regimes, often while also dismissing modern architectural styles as lowbrow, cold, or weak. The current crop of far-right world leaders with authoritarian impulses is no different—and that now appears to include President Donald Trump.”
Adolf Hitler was fascinated with classical architecture.
So was Benito Mussolini.
According to Slate:
“When totalitarianism flourished across Europe, so did ‘fascist architecture,’ or the construction of new federal monuments and buildings in the same architectural style. More than just a way to telegraph leaders’ political vision for the country, it was a way to inspire and reinforce national unity, inextricably weaving together lived experience and political philosophy. At the heart of all that building was a belief that architecture could be a political statement about whom society serves and what it values.”
This is the sentiment conveyed in Trump’s draft order:
“Federal building designs should…inspire the public for their aesthetics, make Americans feel proud of our public buildings. Classical and traditional architectural styles have proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government.”
“Frequently, the leaders who adopted a national architectural aesthetic styled themselves as economic populists, investing in federally funded infrastructure projects to signal a kind of economic rebirth.”
Fascism is the unification of government and industry, infusing nationalism as an implementation tool.
Read again what Sen. Moynihan wrote in Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture:
“Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice-versa.”
In other words, the government should not be dictating design.
This is just another in an increasing list of authoritarian actions Donald Trump has been taking since his was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial.
In the two weeks since Trump’s Republican Senate enablers let the president off the hook, the president has used the captive audience at the annual National Prayer Breakfast to vow vengeance against those who testified against him; fired impeachment witnesses; insinuated himself in the prison sentence of ally Roger Stone; enlisted his Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the division that oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), against “sanctuary” New York by preventing that state’s residents from enrolling in programs to expedite international travel; and is in the process of deploying the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), the Custom and Border Protection (CBP)’s equivalent of a SWAT team, to “democrat sanctuary cities” to help round up “illegals.”
No matter how we look at it, we have become “that country.”
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