Out of the Abyss: ‘Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again’
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Becky Wright Photography/Shutterstock.com

The late Gertrude Himmelfarb, in her 1994 essay “On Looking into the Abyss,” needed only two sentences to diagnose the intellectual ills of our dehumanized age. “The beasts of modernism,”  she wrote, “have mutated into the beasts of postmodernism — relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity. And since then, generations of intelligent students under the guidance of their enlightened professors have looked into the abyss, have contemplated those beasts, and have said, ‘How interesting, how exciting.’ ” More than a quarter of a century on, we are still plumbing those depths, and still giving those beasts free rein, and one of the most aggressive and prominent of these beasts surely must be that of modern architecture.

The modernists and their postmodernist, brutalist, and deconstructivist ilk have long campaigned on the seemingly unappealing but surprisingly successful platform that a home is merely a “machine for living in” (Le Corbusier), that “no ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level” (Loos), and that any modicum of traditionalism “is denying the history of progress” (Bertram). They have sought to écrasez l’infâme of traditionalism and historicism, and in doing so studiously ignored Sir Edwin Lutyens’ sensible rule that “the measure of man’s architecture was man, and that the rhythm of a building should correspond to the rhythms familiar in human life.” Spiritually unmoored, the Modern Movement is largely responsible for the consumer livestock paddocks and other varieties of architectural tat that one finds sown broadcast over our cities, suburbs, and exurbs. (How interesting!) Fundamentally totalitarian, the Modern Movement vomited forth public housing disasters like the infamous Purist–Igoe or Grenfell Tower, in turn producing, in Lord Palumbo’s memorable phrasing, a “hell of atomized communities and crime-ridden dystopias.” (How exciting!) Pathologically iconoclastic, the Modern Movement and its accomplices gleefully bulldozed sites like the McKim, Mead, and White–designed Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station or Philip Hardwick’s neoclassical Euston Station, paving the way for their wretched replacements. (How progressive!) And if you happen not to agree, you will no doubt be subjected to the dreaded reductio ad hitlerum, for you must know, as Hettie O’Brien among others has informed us, that the very notion of “beauty” is “infused with connotations of blood, soil and a Volk.

For my part, however, I must agree with the British poet Richard Le Gallienne:

Art was a palace once, things great and fair,
And strong and holy, found a temple there:
Now ’tis a lazar-house of leprous men.

How very welcome, then, is the recent Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” draft executive order, which requires that applicable federal buildings will henceforth be designed and constructed in styles that “value beauty, respect regional architectural heritage, and command admiration by the public,” while rejecting styles that subvert “the traditional values of architecture via fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry, and the appearance of instability,” the better to provide a “visual embodiment of America’s ideals.” This executive order is not altogether revolutionary, for the 1994 GSA Design Excellence Program already mandated that federal architecture must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government.” But one suspects that in the current administration we have an inclination to actually implement and enforce such an agenda.

I am hardly alone in my enthusiasm for this course of action; three articles in the Federalist alone, by Sen. Mike Lee, Christopher Bedford, and Sumantra Maitra, have hailed the executive order in the last few days. It has been welcome indeed to see so many in the public square following forthrightly in the footsteps of Sir Roger Scruton, Gavin Stamp, James Stevens Curl, Sir John Betjeman, Tom Wolfe, and the like. Sen. Lee’s piece was of particular interest, posing as it did the intriguing question: “Is it any wonder that Americansconfidence in government has collapsed — and the government itself has grown hopelessly dysfunctional — in the decades since Washington abandoned classical design principles in favor of elite modernist fads and the ugly buildings they produce?” Conversely, one must ask whether a society that surrounds itself with structures predicated on “fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry, and the appearance of instability” is uttering some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having voraciously consumed the Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” draft document, I eagerly anticipated the reaction that would surely come from the bien-pensant architectural and academic establishment, and I confess to having experienced what Thomas Harris memorably called that “common emotion we all recognize and have not yet named — the happy anticipation of being able to feel contempt.” I was not disappointed. Like clockwork, Yale professor Glenda Gilmore opined that “this may not seem like the most dangerous thing we face, but it’s one of the warning signs of fascism and … wait for it … genocide,” while Morgan Baskin likewise cautioned that “Trumps draft plan for federal buildings has something in common with 20th century fascists.” Such rhetoric is so histrionic as to be self-refuting, and such swift resorts to the fallacious invocation of faschismus must surely stem from a guilty conscience. After all, it is the Modern Movement that must account for its totalitarian tendencies.

Recall, as Emily Zsarko has demonstrated, that fascist architecture is reflectively modern … of all branching styles of modern architecture, fascist architecture is most reminiscent of brutalism.” Recall Le Corbusier’s keen enthusiasm for fascism and collaboration. Recall the Modernist icon Philip Johnson’s description of the bombing of Poland as “a stirring spectacle” and his later finding inspiration for the famed Glass House in a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of brick.” Recall the doyen of Modernist architectural critics Nikolaus Pevsner’s approving description of the Modern Movement as “totalitarian,” a slip he later came to regret. (David Watkin noted that the “plea for the suppression of the individual which we have noticed in Pevsner’s writings was echoed by Mies van der Rohe … and also by Goebbels who claimed that ‘the individual is being de-throned.’ ”) And always bear in mind that it is not the traditionalist who wants to see the masses interred in those brutalizing Mietskasernen — “rental barracks” or “cemeteries for the living” — the likes of which 20th and 21st-century architects, in their enthusiasm for the extermination of individualism, have proven so fond.

Theodor Adorno’s anti-fascist credentials are sound enough, and it was in his 1951 treatise Minima Moralia that the philosopher described the woeful state of postwar architecture in the following terms:

The functional modern habitations designed from a tabula rasa are living-cases manufactured by experts for philistines, or factory sites that have strayed into the consumption sphere, devoid of all relation to the occupant: in them even the nostalgia for independent existence, defunct in any case, is sent packing…. [Houses] are now good only to be thrown away like old food cans. The possibility of residence is annihilated by that of socialist society, which, once missed, saps the foundations of bourgeois life…. [This] leads to destruction, a loveless disregard for things which necessarily turns against people too.

Of such a state of affairs, we must ask: cui bono? And why should the soi-disant experts and their philistine clients in the liberal gentry, who desire the destruction of independent existence in favor of the dehumanized sphere of consumption, continue to be given a free hand in this regard? The old “Moynihan Rule” required that in the case of federal commissions “design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa,” but we have seen how, as Sen. Lee put it, the “architectural elite has had decades to impress the American people with their faddish theories. And they have failed. Their buildings range from tedious to hideous. Left to their own devices, they cannot be trusted to design lovely and lovable federal buildings that honor our values and our communities. They had their chance; they abused the privilege.” It is earnestly to be hoped that the publication of Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” marks the beginning of a concerted campaign against the “loveless disregard” that our society has been demonstrating towards the very foundations of its existence.

This is not just a matter of aesthetics but also implicates the Aristotelian notions of the common good, the properly ordered society, and the facilitation of choice-worthy lives. “In a society which pursues the common good,” wrote Marcus Raskin in The Common Good: Its Politics, Policies and Philosophy,

there is no meaning to the notion of the “neutral” authority in architecture and design. What has meaning is the need of artists and architects to merge their understanding of how to organize the subjective feelings of others and themselves with the process of openness and to discover ways of using physical space in the public realm in a humane, cooperative and efficient way.

Thus the Moynihan Rule is impracticable and fundamentally delusional. It is impossible for the federal government to be “neutral” when it comes to architectural design, all the more so in a world in which the architectural establishment is committed to an ideology rooted in a loveless disregard for all that came before. A choice must be made: either the path laid out in Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” or the road we have been traveling down, one paved with ill intentions and lined with buildings that resemble 3D printer malfunctions (see Mayne, Thom), practical jokes gone awry (see Gehry, Frank), or Stickle Bricks assembled by bored toddlers (see pretty much any given cityscape). It is a choice between what Léon Krier calls the “architectural speech” of traditional built environments and the distressing “architectural stutter” of the modern city and suburb. And it is, at its most basic, a choice between humanism and brutalism, the former in sync with the “rhythms familiar in human life,” the latter exulting in how “refreshing” it is “to shove your face in cement,” as Nikil Saval notoriously put it.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has chosen the former. Accused of having an “edifice complex,” the national-conservative leader of the Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Alliance has implemented a wide-ranging program of architectural improvements throughout the country, from the restoration of Castle Hill to the creation of a cultural hub in the Városliget city park. According to Samu Szemerey of the Hungarian Contemporary Architecture Center, “These projects, when lumped together, probably constitute the biggest such concentrated architectural project in Budapest in 100 years.” The results so far have been about as impressive as anything the Dual Monarchy achieved. It is quite astounding to think that the facade of the parliamentary building at 6-8 Kossuth Lajos Square, designed by Dénes Horváth and Dezső Hültl, could have been built in 2019. Perhaps the success of the project was due to the clear, rational design goals provided by the Office of the Parliament of Hungary: “coherent, imposing space wall behind the building of parliament, preserving existing building frame and core.” Much the same could be said of the reconstruction of the historic Buda Town Hall, a 2018 project that admirably succeeded in harmonizing a patchwork conglomeration of buildings dating from the 13th to the 20th centuries, albeit with a marked inhomogeneity to the roof space that was meant to render bomb damage from the Second World War into an “integral, visible and readable part of the buildings history.”

There is a great to be learned from such initiatives. There is also, evidently, a great deal to be feared. Viktor Orbán is a proudly illiberal Christian democrat, presiding over a nation whose economy has been growing between four and five percent annually with 3.5 percent unemployment, a nation with a revamped constitution unafraid to invoke King Saint Stephen and the “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood,” and a nation that can take pride in increasingly beautiful architectural design and urbanism that represents the visual embodiment of Magyar ideals. That this model could be applied elsewhere, and might actually be welcomed enthusiastically, is terrifying to those members of the liberal gentry who would prefer to consign traditions to the dustbin of history alongside all the other “old food cans” of which Adorno wrote. What if people were able to live choice-worthy lives while breaking free, as Ryszard Legutko wrote in his recent essay “Why I Am Not a Liberal,” from “the banalities of the marketplace, the media, and mass opinion,” and from “the ideological monopoly of liberalism”? Yale University can “decolonize” its English department all it wants, while canceling its famed art survey course in the interest of stressing “questions of gender, class and race” as well as art history’s “key theme” of climate change; Oxford University’s Classics faculty can even excise Homer and Virgil from the the Mods syllabus in an effort to “reduce the attainment gaps and thus improve access to the subject.” But cultural heritage itself is notoriously anti-fragile, while the same cannot be said of, say, works of modern architecture, which are seldom fit for purpose and rarely last more than a few decades.

G. K. Chesterton was entirely accurate in his assessment that “architecture is the most practical and the most dangerous of the arts,” for while “all the other arts we have to live with,” architecture is “not a thing only that we have to live with — it is a thing we have to live in. We live with it as Jonah lived with the whale.” The architectural whale we have been devoured by is a dangerous one indeed. Within the maw of the great leviathan of modern architecture we have found only fragmentation, disorder, discontinuity, distortion, skewed geometry, and the appearance of instability,” and the dystopias that arise therefrom. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that, in time, Jonah brought himself out of corruption and was vomited out upon the dry land. Thanks to initiatives including Sir Roger Scruton’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission in the UK and Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” here in the U.S., those who have held the line against the scourges and discontents of Modernism can, for the first time in generations, look out of the abyss and catch a glimpse of dry land. And that is genuinely interesting and exciting.

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