What is Classical Architecture and Why Is There an Uproar?

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Robison Wells
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In recent weeks, the architecture community has been in a tizzy over a document that was released from the Whitehouse entitled “Making Federal Buildings Great Again.” As can be guessed from the title alone, the proposal was presented by the Trump administration, and it was controversial. But what does it all mean and why is there a controversy at all?

For starters, what does the proposal say? A seven-page document lays out that the “classical architectural style” would be the “preferred and default style” of all government buildings that cost more than $50 million. It singles out brutalism and deconstructivism as styles that need to be avoided.

So what is the classical architectural style? Classical architecture is derived from Greek and Roman architecture, which continued throughout much of Western architecture, through the renaissance until the advent of Modernism in the 20th Century. It is sometimes referred to simply as “traditional architecture” because it was the standard across the Western world for so long. Some famous traits of classical architecture are the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns supporting a triangular pediment. This is perhaps most famously seen and clearly identified in the Parthenon.

Most of what stands in Washington DC today is a kind of classical architecture known as “neoclassical”, which simply means “new classical”, or a reinvention of ancient Greek and Roman architecture. The most obvious example of this is the United States Capitol Building, but also the Lincoln Memorial, the Supreme Court Building, Monticello, and the University of Virginia. The Whitehouse and the Washington Monument all echo neoclassical styles.

All of this raises the question of “Why is there a controversy?” If all of Washington’s prominent buildings are neoclassical and so iconic, then it stands to reason that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with dictating that all buildings are built in that style.

The first problem is that this goes against a longstanding regulation from 1962’s Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which explicitly states that “an official style must be avoided” and that buildings ought to “reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the nation” where they’re located. In other words, just because something works in Washington DC doesn’t mean it will fit in in, say, Santa Fe, or Seattle. So there’s that.

But the bigger thing at issue is the nature of classical architecture itself. Architectural historians point to the style’s grandness and size at the expense of its “neighborliness”. Thomas Jefferson, a strong proponent of neoclassicism in Washington notoriously hated cities and thought that these structures stand apart from everything else—compare the isolation of the Whitehouse to Britain’s 10 Downing Street, for example. In America, neoclassical buildings are grand but distant.

This was one of the original complaints about the Vietnam Memorial—that it was there in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and looked so plainly out of place. These days, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time that the V of that monument was ever controversial, but there were protests and outrage.

The American Institute of Architects has issued a statement saying it “strongly opposes” the recent executive document, and a petition has been circulating that has garnered thousand of signatures of architects. But, on the other hand, the National Civic Art Society has stated that modernism in Washington (such as the FBI building) “has created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing.”

In a line that could be interpreted in a number of ways, the father of modern American architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, said “The architect must be a prophet. He must keep open minded and he must keep his eyes on the future. . .if he can’t see at least ten years ahead, don’t call him an architect.”

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