A dustup over classical architecture at the University of Virginia prefigured the controversy over Donald Trump’s architecture executive order.
by Catesby Leigh
When Donald Trump ordered a traditionally oriented reform of federal architectural patronage in his final days as president, its life expectancy was exceedingly short. Sure enough, his successor soon revoked the order and subsequently defenestrated most of the members Trump appointed to a little-known but noteworthy design review board. To understand the affair, it’s worth reviewing what transpired in Charlottesville after the turn of the millennium, when the architecture wars heated up at the University of Virginia. On one side was the university’s architecture faculty, reflecting the arcane sensibilities of fashionable latter-day designers and academics and their fellow travelers in the legacy media. On the other side was common sense.
In 1996, UVA completed a new business school campus designed by Robert A. M. Stern, who emulated Thomas Jefferson’s beloved “academical village”—the original ensemble of Rotunda, pavilions, and connecting colonnades girding a long, terraced greensward known as the Lawn. Jefferson famously modeled his crowning Rotunda on Rome’s Pantheon. Stern’s ensemble, which shares UVA’s traditional palette of red brick with details in white wood and limestone, has been a hit with students. Other new buildings adhered to the architectural tradition that Jefferson inaugurated: a handsome pavilion designed by veteran classicist Allan Greenberg for a public-policy institute and a building by Washington’s Hartman-Cox Architects adjacent to the main university library that houses special collections.
So when it came time, in 2005, for the university’s Board of Visitors to consider alternative architectural approaches for a $105 million arts and sciences complex just south of Jefferson’s Lawn, more than half the faculty of the university’s monolithically modernist architecture school tried to head it off at the pass by denouncing traditionally oriented architectural patronage, in a broadside published in the student newspaper, as a matter of converting the university campus into “a theme park of nostalgia” — a Jeffersonian Disneyland.
To get an idea of what was at stake, one might compare the buildings by Stern, Greenberg, and Hartman-Cox with a contemporaneous UVA residential complex, Hereford College, brainchild of a hip New York husband-and-wife team, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. The traditional structures aren’t perfect. There are miscues, such as the downspouts running clumsily down misarranged columns at the entrance to the special collections building. Even so, they represent a sound approach to building on the university’s architectural heritage. The architecture profs dismissed them as a matter of “skin-deep veneers” and “faux Jeffersonian . . . stylistic simulation,” suggesting that they “devalue the authenticity of the truly historic.” (For the record, I was a signatory of a counter-manifesto, also published in the Cavalier Daily, that asserted the opposite.)
Hereford College was completed in 1992 but went unmentioned in the professors’ broadside. It consists of long tiers of stark, low-rise, brick dormitory blocks ascending a slope on the university’s southern outskirts. These edifices are eerily reminiscent of urban renewal–style, inner-city housing blocks—except for the fact that their boxy geometries and arrangement on the site are both oddly skewed. This merely intensifies the buildings’ disorienting, alienating effect. Hereford’s dining hall is distinguished by its designers’ reinvention of the classical portico, which features a neo-industrial enfilade of metallic uprights slitted down the middle so as to resemble tuning forks turned upside-down. Conceived as a transgressively anti-Jeffersonian ensemble, Hereford College is an obnoxious one-off. No sane person would want to see it serve as a model for a university campus as a whole. But that didn’t prevent Williams and Tsien from receiving the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture in 2003 thanks to the UVA architecture faculty’s high esteem.
The UVA profs’ student-newspaper broadside treated architecture as a pseudoscience that is not only intensely politicized but hopelessly theoretical, speaking of it as a matter of “exploration of the essence of a building.” Of course, the essence of good architecture—“stability, utility, beauty,” in the Roman architect Vitruvius’s immortal words—has been known for thousands of years. More problematically still, the professors questioned the perpetuation of UVA’s tradition in classical architecture because it was “inaugurated at a time when racial, gender, economic, and social diversity were less welcome.” So what the university needs, of course, is architecture as an exercise in applied woke hermeneutics.
In the event, the university board decided to split the difference and went with a vapidly “contextual” and eminently forgettable postmodern design for the South Lawn complex. Since then, however, the university’s Jeffersonian tradition has found worthy expression in two classical projects. The first is Bavaro Hall (2010), an elegant building that Stern’s office designed for the university’s school of education at a prominent site on the western perimeter of the historic core campus. With its pairs of Ionic columns impressively deployed within large lunette-crowned openings, Bavaro Hall is not only an improvement on the school’s drab and utilitarian 1970s structure next door but also a worthy neighbor to the superbly monumental Memorial Gymnasium (1924), with its giant Corinthian order—raised one story off the ground—flanking astutely fenestrated arches. The second major classical project involves replacement of an anorexic 1960s addition to the university’s august Alderman Library (1938) with a structure worthy of the original building. The earlier addition, which housed library stacks, ruined views of the library from the main campus approach along University Avenue—a major defect that the new project, by HBRA Architects of Chicago, will correct.
The university’s more recent modernist buildings, on the other hand, include two distinctly exogenous, visually abrasive additions to the architecture school’s Campbell Hall (1970). The original structure was intended to reconcile its Jeffersonian context with high modernism, largely through reliance on red brick and white concrete. Each addition was designed by a UVA architecture prof, and each flags the architecture school as an asylum for the artistically disturbed. They make one grateful that alumni appreciative of UVA’s cultural heritage have held their own, of late, against the school’s “explorers.”
From the deconstructivist monstrosity that is San Francisco’s Federal Building to the spectacularly hideous array of Brutalist structures in our nation’s capital — with many a more or less banal instance of esthetic dysfunction in between — America’s architectural patronage of recent decades has vastly amplified the lessons UVA offers. A handful of new classical buildings — including HBRA’s federal building and U.S. courthouse (2011) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, erected thanks to the clout of a longtime Alabama senator, Richard Shelby —demonstrate that good federal architecture is perfectly feasible. But common sense probably won’t prevail anytime soon, now that President Biden has revoked his predecessor’s 11th-hour executive order stipulating that classical and traditional architecture be given priority in the commissioning of U.S. courthouses, agency headquarters, and other federal buildings with a price tag exceeding $50 million.
Trump was a lame duck by the time he signed the order last December, a leaked draft of which, early in 2020, had caused an uproar among devotees of the bankrupt, modernist-dominated status quo — in which General Services Administration bureaucrats and the American Institute of Architects were, and are, deeply invested.
Trump’s EO, entitled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” was an invaluable trial run for future reform of federal architecture policy — whether that reform eventuates as an informal consensus, official guidelines, another EO, or even a statute. (Indeed, an AIA-supported bill codifying the status quo, comically entitled the “Democracy in Design Act,” was introduced in the House in September, the second such bill triggered by the federal architecture dust-up.) The Trump EO retained Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s excellent stipulation, in the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” he composed while serving in the Kennedy administration, that Uncle Sam’s future buildings reflect “the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American Government.” That stipulation could have been inspired only by the nation’s classical heritage — in other words, by an established, normative idiom for public architecture. But Moynihan declared that there should be no “official style” and effectively entrusted federal architecture to the modernist establishment — precisely the dispensation the AIA aspires to set in concrete. Trump’s EO offered an excellent account of the mayhem, of which Moynihan himself was well aware, that ensued.
While designating the classical as “the preferred and default style” for the nation’s capital, however, the EO included hair-splitting over employment of non-classical historic styles such as Gothic, Romanesque, and Pueblo Revival. It opened the door to such styles outside the nation’s capital, while everywhere raising the bar for modernist designs — only imposing outright bans on those in Brutalist or deconstructivist modes, which have by no means lost their relevance to contemporary “cutting-edge” architecture.
Classicism, however, is not a “style” in and of itself. It is a visual language of enduring, objective forms wedded to a coherent syntax, a language whose flexibility has permitted stylistic variations in federal architecture ranging from Palladian classicism to art deco. Classical buildings are composed in a manner analogous to the human body, with an organic hierarchy of parts comprising a legible, resonant whole. We are instinctively drawn to such buildings. The same cannot be said of modernist architecture’s dehumanized forms. All three branches of the federal government are headquartered in classical buildings: the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. Apart from a three-decade interlude of eclectic Victorian confusion between the Civil War and the mid-1890s, classicism predominated from the Founding until World War II. And it has served the nation brilliantly, defining civic architecture in the public mind.
The Trump EO also errs in its portrayal of the political patronage of Washington and Jefferson:
President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson consciously modeled the most important buildings in Washington, DC, on the classical architecture of ancient Athens and Rome. They sought to use classical architecture to visually connect our contemporary Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity, reminding citizens not only of their rights but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions.
There is no evidence, so far as I know, for any such effort by the two Founders to employ classical architecture as a means of democratic political editorializing. Jefferson, good lawyer that he was, was won over by the artistic significance, as authoritative precedents, of ancient buildings — especially the Pantheon, perhaps the Roman Empire’s most influential architectural landmark, and also a gorgeous Roman temple in the southern French city of Nîmes on which he modeled his Virginia Capitol in Richmond. (“Here I am, Madam, gazing whole hours at the [Nîmes temple], like a lover at his mistress,” Jefferson wrote to a Parisian lady while serving as the American minister to France.) In hiring the engineer and artist Pierre Charles L’Enfant, son of a court painter at Versailles, to lay out the future U.S. capital, Washington could not fail to recognize the value of the artistic training that flourished under the Bourbon monarchy. The influence of French baroque planning is evident in the panoply of avenues radiating from the Capitol and the “President’s House” in L’Enfant’s magnificent plan of 1791. Washington and Jefferson, in other words, were guided mainly by a Vitruvian mandate, not a “democratic” one. Architecture can have a political role — to ennoble the institutions it houses — but at the same time it runs deeper than politics. Goethe famously referred to it as “frozen music.”
And because the classical architectural canon has proved uniquely conducive to the fulfillment of Vitruvius’s watchwords in the nation’s federal architecture, it should serve as Uncle Sam’s default idiom — period. It has always lent itself to distinct regional interpretations as well as stylistic variation. While non-classical designs, traditional or modernist, should not be ruled out, they should be required to demonstrate superiority to available classical alternatives in embodying the “dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American Government” or in reflecting regional traditions. In addition, modernist designs should be required to demonstrate cost-effectiveness, as regards structural performance as well as construction costs, compared with available traditional alternatives.
The important cost-effectiveness issue will require an impartial study when that becomes possible. During last year’s EO controversy, the AIA regurgitated the misleading argument that classical design “can increase the cost of a project (to up to three times as much)” in a letter to Trump. Many laypeople are taken in by this canard, but the truth is that modernism’s proclivity for abstract, unornamented surfaces and details means construction elements must be dimensioned very precisely to keep the weather out. And that is expensive. Classicism allows for greater tolerances because joints can be concealed by pilasters, belt courses, cornices, and so on. Modernist designs can also be harder to make weather-resistant because of their frequent eschewal of time-tested local usages of materials and details. “The end result when compared apples-to-apples (in terms of quality, details, and finished execution),” a gifted classical architect wrote to me not long ago, “is a modern[ist] building will be more expensive, it will have a shorter lifespan, and it will also require higher maintenance and upkeep costs.” This can and should be verified.
Not surprisingly, GSA bureaucrats have been out to lunch on the matter. In 2018, the Government Accountability Office reported that the GSA “does not estimate most O&M [operations and maintenance] costs during planning and design,” even though such costs are apt to account for over half the expenditure on buildings erected under the Design Excellence program the GSA launched in 1994 in a generally forlorn effort to up its architectural game. Inter alia, the GAO pointed to the frequent O&M outlays resulting from glassy atria, entrance pavilions, and lobbies — tokens, in the modernist lexicon, of “democratic openness and transparency” — thanks to problems with cleaning and heating and cooling, along with leaky ceilings requiring expensive scaffolding or mechanical lifts to repair. A year after the GAO report, GSA got around to publishing a “Design Guide for Operational Excellence” that focused on “lessons learned” from a multitude of architectural, landscaping and mechanical goofs along the lines of those documented by the GAO. It notes the problems, such as internal glare and overheating, that a persistent infatuation with glassy façades has generated. However, the GSA guide never questions the Design Excellence program’s modernist bias and its ramifications for buildings’ structural performance.
Aside from deep-sixing the Trump EO in February, Biden more recently fired four Trump-appointed members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts before they served out their four-year terms. The CFA is responsible for reviewing architectural and commemorative projects in Washington’s monumental core. Biden’s action was unprecedented, and a Republican administration will likely reciprocate down the line. All seven members of the Trump CFA were white males, provoking shrieks of indignation. Also denounced was a dearth of professional credentials — starting with chairman (for a matter of months) Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society and a lawyer by training. I should note that I’ve known Shubow for a decade. He has brought a good deal of useful information to my attention during his NCAS tenure. He is not the first lawyer to chair the CFA, and he was a perfectly competent appointee. He made plenty of enemies, however, during the NCAS’s long campaign against Frank Gehry’s preposterous design for a Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which was finally inaugurated last year. At this time, three Trump-appointed, amply qualified members — the architects James McCrery and Duncan Stroik and the civic-art impresario and architect Rodney Cook — remain on the commission, a classically oriented minority.
One might take a skeptical view of lofty credentials where our cultural elites are concerned. After all, the CFA had plenty of big names when it failed to scuttle Gehry’s Eisenhower memorial design, anchored in its final iteration by a gigantic openwork stainless-steel billboard that features a baffling morass of squiggly lines supposedly representing the Pointe du Hoc at Normandy Beach. The same goes for the disgracefully inept, pseudo-monumental deep-relief portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., at his thoroughly disappointing memorial (2011) alongside Washington’s Tidal Basin.
The CFA’s new chairwoman is Billie Tsien, who has raked in numerous honors testifying to the cultural establishment’s esteem. Her office designed UVA’s Hereford College. More recently it designed a new home for the Barnes Collection on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This edifice, whose exterior features a patchwork grid of textured limestone panels surmounted by an enormous cantilevered light box, was intended to provide a convenient location and spacious accommodations for one of the world’s most important collections of early modernist art. That collection, originally housed in the Main Line suburb of Merion, was assembled by Albert C. Barnes, a successful pharmaceutical chemist and entrepreneur who wisely chose Paul Philippe Cret, the great French-born classicist, to design what proved to be a strikingly beautiful museum building. To say the Benjamin Franklin Parkway structure fails to measure up would be an understatement. A current work-in-progress at Tsien’s shop is the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago, featuring a massive, brutally disfigured tower that will degrade the Frederick Law Olmsted–designed landscape where the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 took place.
Politically liberal classicists, of which there are plenty, were outraged by the support Shubow and the NCAS gave the White House during the drafting of the EO — especially after the Trumpian mob invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6. But the NCAS was founded to restore classicism to its rightful primacy in our nation’s civic art, starting with the nation’s capital. It was not founded to pick and choose which presidential administration it would elect to work with. Whether or not Trump signed the order just to poke a finger in the cultural establishment’s eye, the year-long EO controversy helped put federal patronage on conservative radar screens. And Biden’s review-board defenestrations will hopefully help keep it there.
The federal patronage issue deserves attention. To judge by many liberal politicians’ silence in the face of the Black Lives Matter–antifa campaign of statuary defacement and destruction last year, woke ideology has serious traction on the left. That ideology inspired this fulmination from a Cornell architecture professor after the draft EO leaked in February 2020:
Imported by Europeans from Western Europe, [classicism] testifies to a colonial presence in a colonized territory. In addition to fortifying conservatism and Eurocentrism incarnate in U.S.-centrism, and undermining design freedom and contemporaneity, the [draft] order eulogizes the massacres of Native Americans, enslaved African people, and other oppressed communities to ultimately reinforce white supremacy.
The professor’s drift is clear enough. It’s easy to say that we wouldn’t be seeing such rants but for Trump’s undeniably polarizing politics, but UVa’s architecture profs hardly needed a Trumpian pretext to advocate classicism’s politicized excommunication. Whenever its prerogatives are questioned, the modernist establishment can be expected to play the race card. And just as Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, the usual suspects will always have Albert Speer.
This brings us back to the importance of understanding classicism as a kind of language. No question unsavory regimes have made use of it. But classicists’ principal aspiration across the ages has been making the world more beautiful regardless of the virtues or vices of the powers that be — an aspiration supremely well suited to the civic architecture of our raucous democratic republic.
Catesby Leigh writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C. He was a founding chairman and research fellow of the National Civic Art Society. This essay has been republished with permission from City Journal.