Donald Trump Dances About Architecture
As his attempts to overturn the election continue to fail, and with the pandemic still getting worse, Donald Trump took a couple of ineffectual steps recently to shore up his Culture Wars cred. Last Friday, he appointed a bunch of people to his "1776 Commission," a little project aimed at teaching American History the Right way, with appropriate worship of the Founders and all the greatest American heroes, plus a paragraph each for Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, but not too much, lest the 1619 Project poison kids' minds. Then, on Monday, Trump finally issued his big executive order declaring that architecture for federal buildings must be "beautiful," and in the neoclassical style whenever possible. Ultimately, neither is likely to amount to a hill of beans, but the important thing is the gesture to rightwing culture warriors, just like how we're now safe to say "Merry Christmas" again without being shot on sight.
Don't you feel more patriotic already?
That "1776 Commission" is Trump's contribution to making public schools' American history curriculum more worshipful of the nigh-infallible Founders, even though the content of public school curricula is set by the states, not the federal government. The commission's membership, as expected, will be loaded with folks from Hillsdale College and the Heritage Foundation, as well as great academic luminaries like Charlie Kirk, Yes Really. As Politico explains, the goal here is to fix history education, which Trump believes is full of socialism and teaches children to "hate their own country," what with all the accurate information on slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of Native America, and the rapacious capitalism of the Gilded Age. All the kids need is a lot more propaganda about how America is the very best country, with liberty and unlimited opportunity for everyone, and suddenly we'll be more united and patriotic.
In other words, yet another version of the same culture-wars bunkum that's been with us since the 1980s, hooray. Politico points out that the commission members will have two-year appointments, "but it's unclear if those selected will ever meet. President-elect Joe Biden has included addressing racial justice issues among his top concerns when he takes office." Maybe the commission members can be put to some kind of useful work, like cleaning the restrooms at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Trump's long-anticipated Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture (Yes, Really) is aimed at fighting back against degenerate modernism in architecture, as we discussed when a draft of the order was leaked back in February. The chief difference between that draft order and the actual thing issued Monday is that while the draft would have explicitly mandated the General Services Administration (GSA) use classical style for new federally owned buildings in Washington DC and elsewhere, the final version merely says that public building designs should
uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, command respect from the general public, and, as appropriate, respect the architectural heritage of a region. They should also be visibly identifiable as civic buildings and should be selected with input from the local community.
After general outcry over the draft's attempt to mandate classical style, the order simply claims that
Classical and other traditional architecture, as practiced both historically and by today's architects, have proven their ability to meet these design criteria and to more than satisfy today's functional, technical, and sustainable needs. Their use should be encouraged instead of discouraged.
It's also painfully obvious that Donald Trump didn't write a word of the thing, and probably didn't read it, either.
But golly, the order sure does like to argue a lot about how bad virtually all postwar architecture is, for the sake of griping about snotty "elites," who are bad primarily because they're "elites." We're told that much federal architecture "sometimes impresses the architectural elite, but not the American people who the buildings are meant to serve," and that "Many of these new Federal buildings are not even visibly identifiable as civic buildings." Because where are the Ionic columns, damn it?
San Francisco Federal BuildingPhoto by 'HaeB,' Creative Commons license 4.0
Just savor the pure resentment in this paragraph on the Federal Building in San Francisco, and the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City, both of which we think are kind of funky and fun to look at (which we would, because we're degenerates):
GSA selected an architect to design the San Francisco Federal Building who describes his designs as "art-for-art's-sake" architecture, intended primarily for architects to appreciate. While elite architects praised the resulting building, many San Franciscans consider it one of the ugliest structures in their city. Similarly, GSA selected a modernist architect to design Salt Lake City's new Federal courthouse. The architectural establishment and its professional organizations praised his unique creation, but many local residents considered it ugly and inconsistent with its surroundings
Salt Lake City Federal CourthousePhoto by 'Ricardo 630,' Creative Commons license 4.0
Just to be on the safe side, Trump also signed legislation Monday renaming the courthouse in Salt Lake City after Orrin Hatch, so maybe that will make it less of a threat to public morality.
As we say, we think they're nifty, but perhaps that just shows how terribly out of touch we are. Also, as Wonkette's Stephen Robinson pointed out when the first draft of the order came along, "We also don't trust the man who willingly lived in this room to make aesthetic appraisals."
Plus, as plenty of critics have pointed out, the very idea that "classical" design is somehow the acme of human achievement, while modernism is suspicious and degenerate, even dangerous to public morals, is deeply tangled up with authoritarian impulses, and as has been documented to exhaustion, your American white supremacists have been borrowing all sorts of imagery from a very shallow understanding of Greek and Roman art and culture. Actual classicist Donna Zuckerberg explained some of the motives behind the alt-right's Greco-Roman rustling to Vox. They imagine the ancient world was as white as a Hollywood swords-and-sandals epic, which it wasn't, and that America needs to get right with that imagined history.
[They] want to predict what the future of America will look like, so they turn to these ancient cultures for patterns that reinforce their expectations. For instance, there's a strong belief that liberals are trying to create a chaotic multicultural society that's destined to fail; and the purity and patriarchy of ancient cultures, on their reading, is just a superior model, or at the very least, an argument in defense of their worldview.
So you absolutely can't have a bunch of buildings that are all wavy and shit, because straight lines and columns make America great, isn't that obvious?
As Jan. 20 draws closer, Trump is also expected to order that the US Navy begin equipping all ships with figureheads at the prow, because traditional, and to specify they should be "good looking broads with big hooters."
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