My Op-Ed in the New York Post: Trump’s Right: Americans Deserve Nice Public Buildings — Even if Elites Sneer

On October 24, 2020, the New York Post published the following op-ed by me:

Trump’s Right: Americans Deserve Nice Public Buildings — Even if Elites Sneer

Government architecture is not a subject that typically gets much public attention. That changed in February with the leaking of a draft presidential executive order that would re-orient federal architecture in a traditional direction, including a requirement that new office buildings in Washington be classical in design.

Controversy erupted. The American Institute of Architects wailed: “President Trump, this draft order is antithetical to giving the ‘people’ a voice and would set an extremely harmful precedent.” Then came the media pile-on, with The New York Times sneering about “fake Roman temples,” and Wired fretting about the “new architects of fear.” Numerous other outlets rushed to make comparisons to Hitler.

In reality, an order like this would respect longstanding precedent and properly return federal architecture to its origins. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson conceived that classical architecture — harkening back to democratic Greece and republican Rome — best embodied the new nation’s ideals.

Seeing classical architecture as unsurpassed in beauty and grandeur, not to mention its reflection of reason and order, these two founders personally oversaw the design of the White House and Capitol, and ensured that the capital city was planned along classical lines. Such features as columns, pediments, pillars and domes came to visually symbolize American democracy and set the precedent for nearly 150 years. Indeed, in 1901, the Treasury Department codified existing practice by making classicism the official style.

In 1962, however, the White House’s “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” rejected official classicism in favor of Modernism — the austere, functionalist aesthetic, which, together with its post-modernist progeny, dominates federal architecture to this day. Since 1994, only six of the 78 federal buildings constructed under the current design program have been classical or traditional.

What do the American people have to show for all the post-war construction done in their name? Much of it would have looked more at home in the dreary cities of our Soviet rivals: buildings like the Brutalist J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building, famously loathed by President Trump. The hulking concrete pile that is home to the Department of Housing and Urban Development has received bipartisan condemnation from its various occupants. Republican HUD Secretary Jack Kemp called it “10 floors of basement,” whereas a later Democratic successor, Shaun Donovan, said the building was “among the most reviled in all of Washington — and with good reason.”

The General Services Administration, the agency overseeing the design and construction of government buildings, insists on calling the HUD headquarters an “outstanding Modern achievement.” More recent GSA buildings, some of them avant-garde, have been variously derided as a “Borg cube,” “hulking, aggressive tower” and having a “sinister dimension.”

Is this really what American citizens actually want in their federal architecture? The opposition to Trump’s purportedly “undemocratic” order completely ignored that key democratic question.

Thanks to a Harris Poll survey (available at civicart.org) on behalf of the National Civic Art Society, the organization I lead, we now have the answer: Nearly three-quarters of Americans (72 percent) prefer classical and traditional architecture for US courthouses and federal office buildings. The poll found a widespread preference for traditional style among all demographic groups: women and men (77 and 67 percent respectively); African-Americans, whites and Hispanics (62, 75 and 65 percent); even across generations and income levels. The survey results were also strongly bipartisan, with 70 percent of Democrats and 73 percent of Republicans favoring the traditional option.

Our survey comports with prior studies. As The Wall Street Journal reported, a 2007 Harris poll commissioned by the AIA showed “Americans preferred older buildings that evoke ancient architectural styles such as Gothic, Greek and Roman traditions. Of the top 50 [buildings], only 12 can be described as ‘modern-looking.’ ” Numerous peer-reviewed academic studies have found a great disconnect between the aesthetic preferences of contemporary architects and ordinary people.

The architectural establishment has been trying to quash democratic preferences for years. But unlike the tiny minority of elites howling over the executive order, when normal people see a classical courthouse, they don’t see a “fake Roman temple” — they see a temple of justice. Nothing could be more democratic than an executive order that gives the American people what they want.

Posted in American Institute of Architects (AIA), Americans' Preferred Architecture for Federal Buildings, civic architecture, classicism, federal architecture, General Services Administration, George Washington, GSA's Design Excellence Program, Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture, Harris Poll, Modernism, National Civic Art Society, Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C. | Leave a comment

Video of My Talk at AEI Regarding the Draft Executive Order on Federal Architecture

On October 19, 2020, I participated in a panel hosted by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) regarding the draft Executive Order regarding federal architecture. To adapt AEI’s summary of the event:

AEI’s Gary J. Schmitt noted that Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s nearly 60-year-old “Guiding Principles” still govern federal architecture and that we are long overdue for a reassessment. Justin Shubow of the National Civic Art Society called for re-orienting federal architecture in a classical and traditional direction, noting public support of classical architecture. He emphasized modernism’s stylistic chaos that has failed to produce classicism’s beauty or symbolism. University of Notre Dame’s Michael Lykoudis expressed skepticism about mandating classicism by government fiat, whereas past cultures depended on public consensus, craft, and building expertise.

University of Notre Dame’s Philip Bess pointed out philosophical, anthropological, and constructional errors that have made modern architecture a failure. Mandating classical architecture would not only be philosophically right but also produce more durable and useful buildings. However, Williams College’s Michael J. Lewis warned that the quality of government-mandated classical architecture around the world has often been poor, but he hoped enlightened patronage could reinvigorate classicism as an architectural language.

Panelists also addressed the role of presidents in architectural decisions, improvements to the executive order, and historical analogies to a possible classical revival.

Posted in American Enterprise Institute, civic architecture, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, federal architecture, Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture, National Civic Art Society, uncategorized | Leave a comment

Athenaeum Review Podcast Interview of Me: Modernism, Classicism, and the Built Environment

The Athenaeum Review recently published an hour-long podcast interview of me. Here is the description:

In this episode, we talk with Justin Shubow, President of the National Civic Art Society, about modernism and classicism, the profession of architecture and its role in civil society, public monuments in Washington, D.C., the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and much more.

In Part One:

On the Eisenhower Memorial, and the role of the General Services Administration in Federal patronage of architecture, for example the Salt Lake City courthouse (2:00) — Is it affordable to build classically today? (8:00) — Can classicism be creative and innovative? (10:30) — Starchitects and expressionism (14:00) — Modernists against classicism: Harvard’s Joseph Hudnut critiques John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial (17:00) — Philosophy, the Zeitgeist and architecture (19:30) — Roger Scruton, the vernacular and architecture (21:30) — Is there anything to learn from Las Vegas vernacular architecture? (25:00)

Listen to Part 1.

In Part Two:

What are the institutional prospects for architectural classicism in America? (2:00) — Are modernism and classicism simply culturally relative phenomena, or can they somehow transcend their place and time? (7:30) — The virtues of the Chrysler Building and Art Deco, the last of the classical styles (13:00) — Classical architecture today: David M. SchwarzRobert A. M. SternAllan GreenbergRoman and Williams (15:00) — On Michael Oakeshott, rationalism and architecture (17:30) — Oakeshott’s political philosophy (23:00) — On philosophy and men’s clothing (26:30) — Joseph Shubow, and the beginnings of an interest in architecture and design (31:15)

Listen to Part 2.

Posted in Eisenhower Memorial, federal architecture, General Services Administration, Jefferson Memorial, menswear, Michael Oakeshott, Rabbi Joseph Shubow, Roger Scruton | Leave a comment

Speaking at AEI About the Executive Order on Federal Architecture – Oct. 19

Salt Lake City Federal Courthouse, opened 2014

In February, NPR and other news outlets reported on a leaked draft of an Executive Order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” According to those reports, President Trump is considering signing the Order, which would re-orient federal architecture in a classical and traditional direction. At present, federal architecture is almost entirely Modernist and post-modernist in design. The draft order states:

“Architectural styles–with special regard for the classical architectural style–that value beauty, respect regional architectural heritage, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles” for federal buildings and courthouses costing more than $50 million. The Order also requires that all new federal buildings in the nation’s capital be classical.

On Monday, October 19 from 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM ET, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) will be hosting a web event on “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again: The Debate Over the Future of Federal Architecture.”

The speakers are:

Philip Bess, Professor, University of Notre Dame
Michael J. Lewis, Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History, Williams College
Michael Lykoudis, Professor, University of Notre Dame
Justin Shubow, President, National Civic Art Society

The event, which includes audience Q&A, will stream live HERE. You can also RSVP.

Posted in architecture, civic architecture, federal architecture | Leave a comment

Joining the Board of Advisors of the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation

Roger Scruton speaking at a National Civic Art Society panel on “Beauty and the Human Habitat” at the Phillips Collection in May 2015

I’m pleased to report that I’ve joined the Board of Advisors of the new Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation, which honors the work of the eponymous British philosopher, critic, and author who served on the National Civic Art Society’s Board of Advisors, and who passed away in 2020. In 2018, Scruton was appointed chairman of the UK government’s new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which was established to promote better design of homes and living spaces. In a speech regarding his role on the commission, he said, “Aesthetic values are not arbitrary adjuncts to our intellectual equipment; they are our one sure defence against vandalism, and our way of resisting the forces that are destroying our city centres, and drowning us in junk.”

A brilliant, erudite defender of classical architecture and art, and an advocate for the preeminent role of beauty in human life, Scruton’s work on aesthetics and architecture is some of the very best of its kind. Indeed, he was the greatest philosopher of architecture of his time. A fierce opponent of Modernism, he also distinguished himself by his TV documentary essay “Why Beauty Matters.”

Scruton’s published works include The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of NihilismThe Aesthetics of Architecture, and Beauty: A Very Short Introduction.

Posted in architecture, beauty, classicism, Modernism, National Civic Art Society, Roger Scruton | Leave a comment

Academic Article on the Eisenhower Memorial Controversy

Patrick Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at Lancaster University, published a well-researched, peer-reviewed article, “From a ‘New Paradigm’ to ‘Memorial Sprawl’: The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Memorial,” about the making of the National Eisenhower Memorial. (PDF here) It appears in the book Constructing Presidential Legacy: How We Remember the American President (Edinburgh University Press). Hagopian discussed my role in the controversy:

Congressional leaders, conservative journalists, and others picked up on the cues coming from Eisenhower family members [in opposition to Frank Gehry’s design] and from a damning report Shubow had issued. . . .

Members of Congress borrowed a line of attack first mounted by Shubow, citing the need for a verbal explanation of the symbolic meaning of the tapestries. How, he asked, was anyone supposed to know that the trees depicted in the mesh represented the landscape of the Midwest? It could be anywhere, Kansas or Kazakhstan. “Monuments,” Shubow said, “ought to be clear and unequivocal in their meaning . . . . They must be legible without a guide or key, and certainly without a visitor center or iPad. Monuments speak to us even without signage.” Legislators critical of the Gehry design extensively quoted Shubow’s words. They said the memorial “should be self-explanatory so that ordinary Americans will understand the ideas being conveyed without the need of a visitor center or guide.”

Posted in Eisenhower Memorial, Frank Gehry, Patrick Hagopian, uncategorized | Leave a comment

Speaking at the Dallas Museum of Art on October 10

On October 10, 2019, I’ll be giving a public talk at the Dallas Museum of Art titled “Building Dystopia: What Went Wrong in Modern Architecture.” The free event, which starts at 4:00 pm, is sponsored by the Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History at the University of Texas at Dallas. The talk will be followed by a reception. For more information, click here

Posted in architecture, Modernism, public talks, uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Celebration of Bruce Cole and His Book “Art from the Swamp”

The National Civic Art Society, along with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Encounter Books, co-sponsored a panel discussion in celebration of Bruce Cole and his posthumously published book Art from the Swamp: How Washington Bureaucrats Squander Millions on Awful Art. Cole was chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities from 2001 to 2009, and he was a member of NCAS’s Board of Advisors.

In my talk, I discussed the disaster of the Eisenhower Memorial.

Panelists: Roger Kimball, publisher of Encounter Books and editor of The New Criterion
Catesby Leigh, National Civic Art Society Research Fellow
Justin Shubow, President of the National Civic Art Society

Moderator: Ed Whelan, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center

Date: January 14, 2019
Location: Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C.

Posted in Bruce Cole, Catesby Leigh, civic architecture, Eisenhower Memorial, National Civic Art Society, Roger Kimball | Leave a comment

Panel on the Future of Penn Station

In partnership with Rebuild Penn Station: a project of the National Civic Art Society, Agora presented “The Future of Penn Station,” an evening addressing various proposals to fix the station. I moderated the event, which took place on October 24, 2018 at the W83 Ministry Center in New York City.

PANEL OF SPEAKERS

Kevin Baker, contributing editor to Harper’s magazine who is the author of numerous fiction and non-fiction books, including the City of Fire trilogy.

Richard Cameron, a principal designer at Atelier & Co. in Brooklyn.

Wally Rubin, District Manager of Manhattan’s Community Board Five.

Dani Simons, Vice President for Strategic Communications at the Regional Plan Association.

Samuel Turvey, Chairman of the Rebuild Penn Station Steering Committee, and a Regulatory and Compliance attorney at TIAA.

 

 

Posted in National Civic Art Society, Rebuild Penn Station | Leave a comment