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Executive Orders Don’t Make Buildings Beautiful

February 21st, 2020 | 7 min read

By Patience Griswold

A draft executive order has recently riled up the architectural community. Entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” it points out the ugliness in a number of modern architectural movements and calls for a return to classical and other traditional styles of architecture in Federal buildings. Classical architecture is beautiful. When done well, it is breathtaking. But if we want to see a renewed emphasis on beauty in contemporary architecture, this executive order is unlikely to be the solution. C.S. Lewis famously observed that good philosophy must exist because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The same is true of art, including architecture. Good architecture is essential to a healthy society because it is essential to culture-making. Therefore, bad architecture must be answered, and answering bad architecture is going to take more work than simply incorporating marble columns.

My interest in architecture is that of an amateur enthusiast; I do not claim to be an expert. Amateur though I may be, I have seen that there is beauty to be explored in architecture outside of the neo-classical movement. The “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” draft gives little credence to this idea. While it would not outright ban other architectural styles in Federal buildings, it does require that a designer of Federal buildings produce compelling reason and navigate bureaucratic hurdles if he wishes to depart from it. Although the draft executive order is right in pointing out that there are serious problems with the brutalist and deconstructionist movements, a rigid demand for neo-classicism is not the solution that architecture needs. 

One of the critiques levied against contemporary architecture in Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again is that the buildings are often “inconsistent with their surroundings and the architectural heritage of the region.” This is a valid point. Architecture that does not reflect its surrounding community fails, not because it takes itself too seriously, but because it does not take itself seriously enough. When an architect does not take into account the community in which a building is to exist, he is saying, “This building fills a necessary function,” and “This building makes a statement.” The purpose of a building is not merely to fill a necessary function and possibly make a statement while doing so. It is to create a space for building society. If it does not enable community life and does not reflect and enhance the dignity and beauty of its surroundings, a building has failed to fulfill its purpose. The structures that we build are an expression of our culture-making and our interactions with our surroundings.

In this endeavor, beauty and function are not antithetical to one another, and good architecture should never imply that they are. In the created order, beauty and function elegantly fuse in a declaration of God’s glorious design. The problem with brutalism is that it fails to reflect that truth. The J. Edgar Hoover building says “power,” and not in a good way. While it is particularly disturbing that the building housing the Federal Bureau of Investigation is built in a style that declares brute-force dominance, it is just as troubling that any Federal building reflects an attitude of force rather than one of forming and filling. If our architecture says something about us, we should think seriously about what it says. However, just as brutalism says “Our culture has moved beyond beauty,” so also declaring that a particular style from a particular era must define the future of Federal architecture communicates that we, as a culture, are not active producers of art and beauty. And if we are not producers, if we no longer form and fill our surroundings, what are we? 

The draft executive order is also right in pointing out that the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture has not been wildly successful in producing beautiful buildings. The brief document encourages a rejection of the past, saying “It should be our object to meet the test of Pericles’ evocation to the Athenians… “We do not imitate—for we are a model to others.”” An exchange of ideas, including exchange between the past and the present, plays a crucial role in the development of art and architecture. If we do not imitate, we certainly do echo. Attempting to remove this factor hinders the development of new design and will inevitably lead to architecture that does not serve the community for which it exists. As Burke said to the French revolutionaries, “You began ill because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.” Architecture, like any art, should be rooted in a love for beauty and should not be afraid to incorporate echoes of the beauty of the past.

We should not “decry the backward glance,” and if what is new is heralded merely for being new and we are told that we do not understand when we say that it is ugly, we do in fact have a problem. At the same time, if what is old is declared to be better simply because it is old we have fallen into the same error, only this time, instead of idolizing “progress” we have idolized nostalgia. Nostalgia, when idolized, breeds stagnation. If our love of the past does not inspire and motivate us to make new and beautiful things for the present and the future, we do not so much love what came before as much as we resent the present. This will accomplish nothing because creativity is not an outpouring of resentment, but an outpouring of love. 

The Trump administration is right in pointing out that we need a revival in architecture, but an executive order stipulating exactly what style is acceptable will not bring about renewal. If beauty tells the truth about the world, it is profoundly pessimistic to insist that our society is no longer capable of producing beauty. Perhaps it is my optimism in thinking otherwise that is unfounded, but optimism and pessimism aside, if we are no longer capable of telling the truth and producing beauty, pillars and domes will not save us. We may gain a few more neo-classical buildings, and a few more pillars are unlikely to hurt anyone, but if we want a true architectural revival, we are going to need to restore a love of the true, the good, and the beautiful in the arts. In the meantime, if this draft executive order does go into effect, I sincerely hope that gothic architecture receives equal attention, with a special emphasis on the gargoyles. #MakeDrainPipesInterestingAgain

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