Making the Public Square Beautiful Again

The White House recently released a draft of a proposed executive order, titled Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again. This unexpected proposal sounded a clarion call to restore “classical and traditional architecture styles” in the future construction of Federal Government buildings in the capital and throughout the nation’s heartland, and discourage the post-1950s Corbusian trends of brutalism and deconstructivism. As expected, the recommendation was met by vehement opposition from the American Institute of Architects, the self-proclaimed leading voice of what constitutes a just and aesthetically sound architecture, and numerous mainstream publications claiming to speak in the sole interest of the American people.

The underlying reason behind this executive order should come with no great surprise to the hardworking middle-class American. Federal buildings which have been built since the 1950s and which continue to be built to the present day—perfectly illustrated by the U.S. Courthouse for the Utah District, which opened in 2014—are utterly grotesque and offensive to the human eye. The malaise one experiences is so severe that a follow-up visit to the emergency room is not out of the question.

So how, exactly, did the architecture of Federal buildings go to the wayside, only to march forth relentlessly on the path of sheer ugliness? In 1962, under the penmanship of future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space promulgated the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture. This decree permanently defined the working relationship between the Federal Government and the architectural community as such: “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa.”

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This guidance, as detailed by the current administration, “implicitly discouraged classical and other designs known for their beauty, and declared that design must flow from the architectural profession’s reigning orthodoxy to the Federal Government.” The dominant orthodoxy after the Second World War came to be the neo-modernist architecture of Le Corbusier, Phillip Johnson, and Oscar Niemeyer, to name a few. These self-admiring architects influenced the refashioning of not only American public buildings in historic city centers but the buildings of once-beautiful neighborhoods throughout the Western world. As the classical virtues required to preserve our republic were thrown into the dustbins of history, classical architecture soon met the same fate.

Leon Krier poignantly encapsulates this post-war phenomenon in his book Architecture: Choice or Fate. He observes that there “exist today two kinds of modern architecture.” The first—that which infected the Federal Government—is “a public, standardized, international-style architect’s architecture that may be perceived as arrogant or even provocative.”

The proposed executive order aims to redefine the entrenched status quo of public, commissioned architecture by recalling the “architectural heritage of a region” and encouraging “the classical Greek and Roman architecture” that “have proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government.” Contrary to what the Chicago Sun Times claims, the proposal would “not exclude experimentation with new, alternative systems,” but in the end must “fully ensure that such alternative designs command respect by the public for their beauty and visual embodiment of American ideals.”

Still, some might ask, Why should the Federal Government favor the architecture styles of centuries past over that preferred by the elitist architectural class of the modern age?

The late philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, a studied expert in the realm of beauty and its relation to architecture, believed that architecture—by its very public nature—made an authoritative statement on public morality. Buildings constructed with sound proportion, scale, and a sense of the sacred in mind would promote healthy and flourishing communities. Neighborhoods absent of such ancient wisdom would unintentionally bolster crime and resentment among its local populace and inevitably foster chaos and disorder. Leon Krier also agrees with this observation: “Drawing is an exercise of authority and is therefore an eminently moral activity,” he writes, “involving personal responsibility and conscience, a sense of truth, justice, beauty, scale and proportion.”

Catholics are well aware of the detrimental outcomes of an institution when the appreciation of the sacred and tradition is lost to the new, the hip, and the trendy. The post-Conciliar reformed liturgy and the neo-modern, brutalist architecture of newly built churches have regrettably brought about the declining practice of the Catholic faith in once-thriving parishes. “When the building types of modernism are invariably perceived as a desecration,” Sir Roger writes in The Classical Vernacular, “nothing of the sacred remains in them.”

Crisis readers should be especially pleased to know that at least one faithful Catholic architect has been tapped to provide recommendations to the prospective President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture. Duncan Stroik, the renowned Catholic architect whose most recent project was the magnificent Christ Chapel at Hillsdale College, is one notable name to receive the honor. It would be no surprise if more Catholic architects involved with traditional architecture societies—such as the Catholic Art Guild, a lay apostolate based in Chicago whose mission is to restore beauty, truth, and goodness to culture and the Catholic arts—were called upon to offer aesthetic and technical advice.

No matter what the future holds for the proposed executive order, the mere publication of the draft should bring consolation and optimism to those citizens concerned about how our buildings are formed because, as Winston Churchill prophetically stated in the House of Commons, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” Let us hope that this honorable initiative is given its rightful due and that it does not share a similar unjust fate to the one experienced by the late Sir Roger Scruton as former co-chair of the Building Better Building Beautiful housing commission. After all, as Sir Roger wholeheartedly believed, beauty matters—as does its majestic reflection in our architecture.

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  • Francis Lee

    Francis Lee is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He has served on two deployments in the South China Sea as part of Forward Deployed Naval Forces-Japan. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report, and OnePeterFive. The views expressed are those of the individual only and not those of the Department of Defense (DoD).

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