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American Cornerstone: An Executive Order Ignites Protest over Architectural Erasure

Thousands of names are carved into the long black scar on the pristine green lawn; Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial evokes a granite river streaming towards the Washington Memorial. The dark earthbound representation of the devastation of war forms a stark contrast to the white tower stretching above the nation’s capital city.  Peering into the sea of names offers a still more haunting image: one’s own reflection among the lost.

The memorial isn’t just a wound in the landscape: it’s a contusion amidst the surrounding classical constructions. The memorial slices through the collection of monolithic white buildings whose entrances are guarded by Greek Corinthian columns. Its sleek black granite marks an absence of classical design and a refusal to hearken back to what once was. 

Further down the lawn stands the Vietnam War Memorial’s four modernist companions: the in-progress Eisenhower Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). These five buildings are the only examples of modernist and postmodernist architecture along the National Mall, which is dominated by Neoclassical design. 

With this context in mind, David Adjaye, the British-Ghanian architect who designed the NMAAHC, knew from the beginning that he wanted to make a building that did more than repeat classical designs: “[The NMAAHC] needed to speak a different language.” 

In an effort to break from the federal government’s present-day echo chamber of classical architecture, he drew inspiration from various African artistic traditions: the facade’s three tiers quote the shape of crowns in Yoruba art, and the intricate metalwork is reminiscent of that created by enslaved African Americans. 

From the contents of the museum to its design, the NMAAHC had to overcome a number of hurdles. In 1929, Herbert Hoover first pushed to establish a federal building that honored African Americans; however, Congress repeatedly blocked the bill and failed to provide funding. It wasn’t until 70 years later that Congress passed a bill to support the creation of the museum. 

Even once construction began, it would take ten years for the project to be ultimately completed. Lonnie Bunch III, the museum’s director, later revealed that the museum’s team was also “curat[ing] exhibitions, publish[ing] books, craft[ing] the virtual museum” from the very beginning of the process in an attempt to demonstrate how thoroughly they considered every aspect. The building opened at last in 2016, unveiling a darker modernist design meant to remind visitors of the more painful sides of American history. 

Architects like Lin and Adjaye consciously designed their nonclassical buildings to have specific—often disruptive—relationships with the landscape of the National Mall. Within the theater of the classical federal buildings, their designs are a performance of heavier, simplified lines. 

However, projects like theirs are now at risk. 

In February 2020, Architectural Record reported an executive order drafted by the Trump administration entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” It would eliminate modernist and postmodernist federal works under the pretense of “making Americans proud of our public buildings.” 

The leaked draft announced two major changes: first, the default style for all federal public buildings must be classical Greek or Roman; second, a Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture would be established to determine whether existing buildings meet these requirements and what actions to take if they do not.

It appears that Trump has begun to finalize the plans in the draft, as he has already given Justin Shubow, current President of the National Civic Art Society, a seat on the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). The CFA is a supposedly independent agency meant to advise the President on the design of federal buildings, while the National Civic Art Society is a nonprofit that has fervently railed against the “ugliness” of the modernist Eisenhower Memorial. Shubow’s appointment is the White House’s first step towards complete control over the aesthetics of federal buildings. 

The executive order draft remains unyielding in its dismissal of non-Greco-Roman designs, which are described as “aesthetic failures” and “widely considered uninspiring…or even just plain ugly.” It claims that the American people favor a classical building style, but the study actually shows that Americans prefer Lin’s memorial, the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building—all modernist constructions—to classical buildings like the Supreme Court.  

Since its release, art critics, architects, and architectural organizations have harshly criticized the executive order. The American Institute of Architects expressed their “strong and unequivocal opposition” to the order’s failure to “celebrate the differences that develop across space and time,” arguing that it “represent[s] a regression” in the once style-neutral relationship between government and design.  

The executive order proposal ignores that America’s greatness was built on the backs of citizens from across the world, reducing the image of America to a white, Western one that only classical architecture can express. A policy that is justified through an architectural movement’s claimed ugliness represents a nefarious projection of state power. State control over art and architecture transforms a subjective interpretation of beauty into an objective evaluation of national identity. 

Almost every authoritarian ruler attempts to curate their country’s aesthetic ideal, beginning with its architecture. Napoleon had himself painted in the throne of God from the Ghent Altarpiece; Hitler hired an architect to redesign all German buildings in a classical style. These dictators used control over art and architecture as a political tool to glorify themselves and to suppress dissenting expressions. 

Most revolutions are borne out of finding beauty in unexpected places. The hand-woven rugs during 19th-century industrialization spurred the Arts and Craft art of the era and factory workers’ movements for greater rights. But state discretion over what constitutes beauty eliminates this possibility.

What is truly threatening about this executive order is its intention to develop a singular standard of beauty that represents the American identity. The executive order draft uses language describing classical buildings as “international symbols of democratic self-government” that “command respect by the public for their beauty and visually embody America’s ideals.” 

The particular choice of associating classical architecture with American ideals of democracy closes the door on any image of America that is not predominantly white, Western, and stagnant. The draft’s rejection of modernist combinations of non-Western symbols with classical design principles sends the message that only purely Western designs should be considered beautiful. 

In recent years, white supremacist organizations have weaponized this idolization of classical architecture for their own ends. Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group targeting college campuses, carves the slogans “LET’S BECOME GREAT AGAIN” and “SERVE YOUR PEOPLE” onto posters of the Apollo Belvedere and David. The organization started with only 15 members, but quickly grew in number after Trump’s 2016 win revitalized nationalist sentiments. They spread the posters around dozens of campuses from California to Maine as a reminder of the alt-right’s presence. By taking up space with symbols widely accepted as representations of Western glory, they believe that they can force their ideology into the mainstream. 

These groups are continuing a historical trend: the Nazis used these same classical pieces as rallying points for their own “master race.”

The government’s unyielding prioritization of the cultural history of white Americans is troubling. Classical design was enshrined as part of this cultural identity when the Neoclassical Southern plantation mansions like Jefferson’s Monticello were modeled after Greek and Roman buildings. The art and stories of white political leaders fill history books, and regulations like this new executive order draft continue to reinforce this “civilization tradition” in many other aspects of American life. 

The proposed executive order eerily echoes the insidious white supremacist’s exclusive appreciation of classical art. Why are the Pueblo adobe houses or the ranch-style farm houses of the Midwest not emblematic of our national identity? The decision of what architecture represents America is subject to the whim of those in power, who often make this choice to serve their own agendas.

The choice of classical Greek and Roman architecture as emblems of the “American Identity” also begs questions of whose voices are privileged in this executive order. What is the image of America we are building? Gregory Hood, a writer for the white supremacist online publication American Renaissance, applauded the executive order, characterizing it as “one small step toward reuniting white Americans with our civilizational tradition.” 

The policy favors assimilation and blind patriotism over critical artistic expressions. The emphasis on classical design elements silences any new dialogues between modernist architecture and classical tradition, and in turn, downplays the significance of this movement. 

While the political arena has always presented itself as the playground of America’s privileged class, the previous choices between styles of federal architecture offered designers the opportunity to create  subversive governing spaces. For architects like Lin and Adjaye, Trump’s executive order is especially dangerous; it significantly curtails the ability for artists to innovate new interactions between classical architecture’s Western colonial legacy and larger cosmopolitan schema. 

Complying with this model of classical uniformity risks destroying productive cultural discourse that is valuable in reshaping, or even disrupting, what we’ve come to understand as American history and identity. 

For example, the layout of the National Gallery of Art fosters a dialogue that stretches across heritages and time. The western portion of the gallery is a classical building, modeled after the Roman Pantheon, while the eastern portion is a modernist design by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. 

Regardless of protests against the supposed ugliness of modernist designs, it is undeniable that the modernist movement was born from sentiments of innovation, progress, and growth. Modernist architects’ manipulation of metal and glass developed over time, allowing them to use these materials in novel ways to show the post-war angst that gripped the world. 

Modernist and postmodernist architecture is about moving forward, reappropriating classical elements until they become something new. Despite what the draft order suggests, classicism and modernism are not polar opposites; in fact, modernism grew out of classicism. It uses the same mathematical precision of the classical style, but reflects the reality that after the world wars, the rigid order of classical architecture no longer echoed the public’s psyche. The modernists ruptured the traditional order by incorporating more globalized symbols. It is merely a sign of progress that Greek and Roman art can be made more beautiful with modernist innovations upon that tradition.

All art and architecture is inherently political because they are products of the social and political conditions under which they are created. Even the seemingly simple act of choosing to paint one landscape over another asks the artist to decide if one scene is more worthy of being painted. Neil Leach, a British architect and critical theorist, explains that architecture is made political by the “political associations a building may have” or how a building may facilitate “the practice of those politics through its physical forms.” 

Just as banks often hire architects to design buildings that represent stability, endurance, and reliability, the government determines how federal buildings’ aesthetics represent the nation’s values and identities. However, the current administration’s desire to reinforce Western Europe’s influence on American national identity reveals that this whiteness is nothing more than an elusive story for those stuck in the past to cling to.  

It makes sense that authoritarian leaders would petition a return to the past. No matter how closely their columns resemble the Greeks’, we can never call the buildings we create now classical—they will always be Neoclassical. The past is already gone. It holds power for reactionary authoritarian leaders exactly because it is irrecoverable. Memory is just as much about forgetting as remembering. The past’s irrecoverability allows leaders to distort  it under the guise of returning to what once was. 

This decision has only revealed America’s own insecurities. In a shroud of uncertainty, fear of the unknown, and wavering faith in Americans’ ability to create innovative beauty, Trump has determined that we can only follow ancient trends to reinforce our superiority over our history. In embracing the infallibility of the past, we foreclose the possibility to create a new future.