The defenders of modernist architecture lost no time in assaulting the recent Trump administration proposal that government buildings be classical. Architecture critics and the heads of architecture schools are among those who seek to preserve the putative right of architects to express their interpretation of the modern era with the latest fashions on public land and at public expense.
They argue that government interference would curtail their right to practice their art. If people do not like what they see, well, too bad for them. This argument ignores the fact that a building is a public object that occupies a site that is necessarily part of the realm where people lead their lives.
Things placed in the public realm are obliged to serve the public, common good even if privately owned, and it is the duty of government to ensure this is done. Presently, land is to be used for its “highest and best use,” which is defined by the greatest economic return or, in the case of cultural institutions, for the education of the taste of the people. The result has been a half-century of commercial construction and one-off cultural centers that display the avant-garde styles that the 1962 guidelines encouraged for public buildings as well. …
The classical in service to the public, common good of our nation, however, has been manifested in buildings from those of Thomas Jefferson to Franklin D. Roosevelt. It is also apparent in the choics of President George Washington and Pierre Charles L’Enfant when building the national capital, and in the architects of the first half of the previous century who added the Federal Triangle, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, Union Station, and the National Mall. Need I add the countless state capitols, city halls, courthouses, and other public buildings serving and representing our ideals all across the nation? …
The 1962 guidelines mandated, “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa,” but praise for what the profession has produced is scarce. Consider the colony of federal agency buildings across the National Mall. Their saving grace is that their height and siting is acceptable, but those qualities were determined by century-old safeguards.
“Traditions are solutions to problems we have forgotten,” I read someplace recently. One of the things for which tradition has long been a solution is the challenge of creating beauty in our public life. If we understand beauty as intelligible, that is, if we understand that we can recognize a person or a thing as beautiful for whatever reason, then we understand that beauty points beyond itself, beyond its physical or material aspects, to a spiritual core.
What classical architecture predates and also outlasts is the notion that “form follows function” in what we built and how we live. We need more than a built environment of mere functioning. We need beauty.