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Making America Beautiful Again or fascism reborn? Trump’s rumored executive order drags architecture into culture war

Making America Beautiful Again or fascism reborn? Trump’s rumored executive order drags architecture into culture war
A rumored executive order by US President Donald Trump that would redefine the look of federal buildings brought architecture into the culture war, pitting boosters of brutalism against champions of the classical style.

The journal Architectural Record revealed this week that it had obtained a “preliminary draft” of the order, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” While echoing the language of the 1962 Guiding Principles for federal architecture – written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-New York) – the draft order would go a step further to establish a preferred style.

According to this draft, classical architecture “shall be the preferred and default style” of federal government buildings as the best reflection of the country’s founding ideals, while “Brutalism and Deconstructivism” are condemned as un-American. As examples of failed design, the document specifically brings up three examples –  the federal building in San Francisco, California, and courthouses in Austin, Texas and Miami, Florida – finished between 2007 and 2012.

The news immediately opened a new front in the culture war, pitting conservative critics of modern architecture against liberal defenders of brutalism, who were joined by the American Institute of Architects.

“It’s sad that our architects and planners design such atrocities and create a situation where an executive order is needed to make federal buildings acceptable to even look at without wanting to stab your eyes out,” one traditionalist commenter tweeted.

“If Trump cancels Bauhaus and Brutalism and post-modernism and ‘star architects’ for official buildings, it will be a major victory in the culture war,”said conservative journalist Emerald Robinson.

“This would be one of the great achievements of the Trump Administration,” Human Events publisher Will Chamberlain chimed in, adding that “95 percent of modern architecture is cancer.”

Many posts on the subject contained photos of “brutalist cube oppression” and “post-modern clown deconstructionism,” listing the US Postal Service and FBI headquarters, or the Energy, Education, Health and Housing department buildings, as “monuments to ugliness.”

Brutalism and deconstructivism had their defenders, however – many of which pointed out that Adolf Hitler loved the neoclassical style and compared Trump to the Nazi leader. 

“An imaginary white past for an imaginary white future,”tweeted one anonymous commenter.

New York art history professor Michele Bogart urged Democrats to stand up for the preservation of the city government building in Boston, Massachusetts, “and the rough-edged Brutalist vision it represents.”

The Washington, DC-based American Institute of Architects said on Tuesday that it “strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture,” adding that architecture should reflect “our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates.”

For all the furor, it is yet unclear whether the draft seen by the Record is even authentic, or if the Trump administration seriously intends to pursue it.

The journal notes that the draft uses a lot of the same language as the National Civic Art Society and a recent article by one of its research fellows, both advocating classical architecture. NCAS head Justin Shubow was appointed in November 2018 to one of the commissions overseeing federal construction.

Add to that the recent resignation of David Insinga, chief architect of the General Services Administration (GSA), and one gets a cocktail that’s simply irresistible to conspiracy theorists in Washington.

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