On January 16, 2024, I delivered a talk in Palm Beach, Florida on “Can Federal Architecture Be Great Again?: Trump, Biden, and the Politics of Beauty.” The event was sponsored by the National Civic Art Society and Palm Beach Freedom Institute.
I am Justin Shubow
President of the National Civic Art Society, a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. that promotes the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture. Eleventh Chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal agency comprising seven presidential appointees who are the aesthetic guardians of Washington.
Liberty Law Talk, a podcast of Law & Liberty, featured an interview of National Civic Art Society President Justin Shubow in which he talks about the influence of civic architecture on body politic, the role of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (which he used to chair), the future of memorials, and more.
You can listen to the podcast, which was published on November 20, 2023, or read the transcript HERE.
Justin Shubow: [T]he founders saw classical architecture as returning to the roots of democracy in Rome and Greece. So it made sense that they chose that architecture instead of, say, gothic or something else for the buildings of government. It’s interesting—in the 19th century, when the British Parliament was deciding what their new parliament building was going to look like, they had a competition, and the competition required that the building be either Gothic or what they called Elizabethan. There was opposition to having a classical parliament because people said that style was too Republican, meaning it was too anti-monarchical.
And so I think there is this long association in America tying classical architecture to democracy. And you look at certain structures like the U.S. Supreme Court, which is modeled on temple architecture with the steps leading up with the columns with the pediment. This is a classic American building type, the courthouse that everyone recognizes. It’s what you see on TV and in movies. And when people see that, I think they see a temple of justice. There’s something about the temple form that resonates.
[T]here are certain modernist architects who think of themselves as creative geniuses with emphasis on innovation and “creativity.” They don’t believe that emulating traditional architecture is something that should be done. A lot of them think that they just know better than ordinary people. Even if their designs are not appreciated by the public, they think that they are achieving the highest goals of architecture. And maybe someday, the public will be educated and come around to liking their designs. But of course, say Brutalism has been around for 60 years now, and it’s still widely disliked, and I don’t think it ever will be liked.
There is something about architecture schools that brainwash or deform architects’ minds. There is a study that the longer architects have been in school, the more their preferences diverge from that of laypeople. There was a separate study that found that not only do architects evaluate buildings in a different way from the public, but they can’t even predict how lay people will respond to their buildings. That’s how differently they think from lay people.
And it’s important to understand that a building is not like a painting on a wall or a piece of music. You can’t avoid it. Architecture is forced upon us, and so therefore it’s the most political of the arts, small p political. And when you get to public buildings, it’s explicitly political since these buildings are speaking to who we are and who we wish to be.
A show about the “what and why” of Washington, the DC EKG podcast featured an hour-long interview of me. The show is hosted by Joe Grogan, former director of the U.S. Domestic Policy Council under President Trump, and Eric Ueland, former director of White House legislative affairs.
The episode covered the need for classical federal architecture, Trump’s Executive Order on the subject, and pending legislation in Congress that would essentially codify that Order.
You can listen to the podcast, which was published on November 6, 2023, HERE.
In October 2023, I had the pleasure of delivering a talk on “Ordinary People’s Aesthetic Preferences in Architecture” at the International Making Cities Livable Conference in Dorchester, England. I also participated in a discussion with George Ferguson, former mayor of Bristol; Nicholas Boys Smith, chair of the UK Office of Place; and Hugh Petter, director at ADAM Architecture.
First Things magazine’s July 17, 2023 podcast featured an interview of me by senior editor Mark Bauerlein in which we discussed legislation pending in the U.S. House and Senate that would dramatically re-orient federal architecture from modernism to classical and traditional design. The bills would require that public input be given substantial weight when the government makes design decisions.
You can listen to the podcast HERE.
Relatedly, Politico interviewed me about the aforementioned legislation. To quote the article:
The growth of government in the decades after World War II happened to take place during one of the most maligned periods in public architecture. Like college campuses, government properties have been among the modernist era’s most conspicuous offenders, perhaps because the people commissioning the buildings were not the ones who would have to live or work in them. When it’s their own private home or business, people tend to be much less deferential to the artistes drawing up the blueprints.
In Shubow’s telling, that deference is the problem — baked right into the 1962 [Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture] his rivals want to enshrine in law. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government,” it declares, “and not vice versa.” Rather than a gesture of support for creativity, he says, the language essentially orders public servants to abandon their duty of keeping an eye on the contractors. (He notes that the AIA, which has blasted the GOP bill in the name of free expression, isn’t quite a dispassionate academic group: It’s a trade association for architects, i.e. those very same contractors.) …
Shubow takes satisfaction in a June report from the Government Accountability Office that advises the GSA to formally require and incorporate community input on building designs — a byproduct, he says, of the attention given to Trump’s classical-architecture orders.
It’s a recommendation that’s going to be hard for anyone in politics to criticize, no matter what their opinions on au courant architecture. For elected officials, it may feel un-American to legislate a default national style — but it would seem downright suicidal to openly tell the general public that their views don’t count.
Since 1910, the maximum height of buildings in Washington, D.C. has been greatly limited by federal law. On April 2, 2023, the National Civic Art Society (which I run) and Congress for the New Urbanism sponsored a debate over whether D.C.’s height limit should be raised.
I argued for the negative along with Brian O’Looney, Partner at Torti + Gallas. Arguing for the positive were Ellen McCarthy, Partner at The Urban Partnership, and Harriet Tregoning, Director of the New Urban Mobility Alliance. Both McCarthy and Tregoning are former Directors of the D.C. Office of Planning.
The moderator was Matt Bell, Professor of Architecture at the University of Maryland and Principal at Perkins Eastman.
You can watch the video HERE.
In an interview by Carl Korsnes at Sivilisasjonen (“Civilization”), I discussed whether architecture is a partisan issue. I also delved into the philosophy underlying so much Modernist architecture:
The Rejection of Zeitgeist
Shubow is obviously not in accordance with his time – at least not in a Hegelian sense. Instead of claiming that a building should “reflect its time,” he argues that it ought to serve the people it is made for.
– I do think that if you have a training in traditional philosophy, including Enlightenment philosophy, you can see a lot of the flaws in the philosophy underlying so much of modernist architecture. If you look at the great modernist thinkers, so many of them are steeped in Hegel, the 19th-century German philosopher. They have this sort of metaphysical belief in the progress of history, that history is unfolding in some particular way, and therefore buildings need to express the age.
As an example, he quotes the foundational modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who said: “Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space.”
Shubow is rather a reader of philosophers such as Karl Popper, who was highly critical of what he called historicism. “Historicism” is the idea that there is determinism in history, that we can see the future, and therefore, we make judgments about how history is unfolding and how we ought to act.
– In my view, historicism is false, and therefore I think that so much of the philosophy underlying modernist architecture is also false. There is no such thing as the direction of history, there is no such thing as the Zeitgeist, Shubow claims and continues:
– Early modernist architects would claim that there are no aesthetic preferences on their part, but rather that the spirit of the age – which they assume to be a beneficial spirit – is only acting through them in some mystical way. To me, that is obviously false. Yet, so many architects believe architecture must follow the Zeitgeist. It’s not that they are consciously Hegelians. Most don’t know who he was; they don’t see the water in which they swim.
– What are your arguments for claiming that there does not exist a Spirit of our Age?
– Well, I do not believe that spirits exist in any metaphysical sense. Obviously, there are trends in any particular time, but here is no geist in the way Hegel used the term. Moreover, there are diverse trends—whether regarding economics, technology, politics, culture, and so on—many of them moving in different and contradictory directions. Some trends are good, others bad. There’s no end of history that we are heading towards, and there is no essence of our time, says Shubow before adding:
– When architects so frequently talk about needing to build for our time, the spirit of our time, do they really think they are the one able to determine even what that Zeitgeist is, even assuming there is such a thing? Are they great thinkers?
Some of today’s architects attempt to follow the Spirit of the Age by rather simplistic reasoning, he argues. For instance, some architects design buildings that look “digital,” such as so-called Jenga Architecture, since we live in a digital age. Shubow argues that good architects need to be more sophisticated in the way of thinking if they are to make good buildings.
– If the world is changing so fast, it is reasonable to think that people are in greater need of a sense of comfort and security and a place of home. So, therefore, architecture should be more traditional and rooted when certain aspects of life are so liquid.
For the full interview, see here.
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.
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)
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. Schwarz, Robert A. M. Stern, Allan Greenberg, Roman 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)
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