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Architecture wars

Robinson Meyer tweets:

If most Americans hate architectural abstraction and Mies-inspired modernism, then there’s still a compromise solution. It’s simple: All federal buildings should be designed in the style of India’s National Fisheries Development Board.

Trump has put architecture centre stage in the culture wars. Which will make it all much more interesting. Especially if more creature buildings are built, like the one in the picture above. And especially if they built something like a huge panda building or huge frog building, in Washington.

Eventually, there should be a giant building in Washington, the tallest in town, shaped like Donald Trump. A giant Trump sculpture. That would drain the swamp. They’d all flee in terror.

To be a bit more serious, but only a bit, just think about Trump’s edict, which says that from now on, all Federal Government buildings in the USA must be designed in the “classical” style. No more office blocks looking like multi-story car parks or international space stations. From now on, they’ll have to have a Parthenonic frontage stuck onto them.

Were any such buildings actually to get built, everyone who looks at one of these buildings is going to see … Trump. But all the people who work in government buildings hate Trump from the depths of their tax-dollar-sucking bossy-boots souls. So, they’ll make a huge stink to ensure that no such buildings ever get built. How beautiful is that? The governmental classes will, for the duration of Trump’s reign of architectural terror, expend huge amounts of energy opposing the expansion of the Federal Government.

The more I hear and see of Trump, the more I like him. But I’m talking about America, and what do I know about America? Luckily, we have plenty of commenters who do know about America, because they live there. Gentlemen, start your engines.

34 comments to Architecture wars

  • Kalashnikat

    Having ridden in my parents’ car back and forth along the fabled Route 66 in my childhood, I have vivid memories of American Motel and Restaurant Architecture of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s…
    TeePee motels, Adobe Pueblo motels, log cabin motels, US Cavalry Fort motels, and restaurants shaped like dachsunds, Swiss chalets, the Alamo, the Taos pueblo, Locomotives, buses, cars, giant iguanas, dinosaurs, and so on…
    I find the Indian fisheries building “cute” and “quaint.”

    Having spent significant portions of my adult life in and around Washington DC, New York City and othe major metropolitan centers, I have always wondered how, and for G_d’s sake, WHY, American Government bureaucratic and suppoedly monumental buildings came to be so wretched and hideous.
    Calling them “Brutalist” is too kind. They are intentionally soul-destroying, at the whim of narcissist architects and GSA bureaucrats.

    Almost anything Trump can do to restore some sanity to government architecture will be an improvement.

  • Kalashnikat

    Put the Department of Education in a little red schoolhouse…a very small building. Put the Department of Transporation in an actual Boeing 747, and make sure it’s not an oversized variant. Put Health and Human Services in a building no larger than a Dodge City doctor’s office from Gunsmoke. Put the DOJ in the Dodge City Jail.

  • bobby b

    I’m wondering what building you put the Department of Sexually Transmissible Diseases in. Ought to be a hoot.

  • Ken Mitchell

    I have a much better idea; the US Federal government has too many buildings already. Have an absolute moratorium on building or leasing new facilities. There are too many government functionaries doing too many things (badly) that, in many cases, doesn’t need to be done at all.

  • Ferox

    At least a few federal agency buildings could be greatly improved by the complete omission of entrances.

  • Demonstrating Conquest’s law that people are conservative about things they understand, the prince of Wales has some sensible ideas about architecture – which got him called a ‘supporter of nazi architecture’ by the UK’s architecture establishment a while back (the same establishment that forced out Sir Roger Scruton more recently).

    So, Kalashnikat (February 22, 2020 at 2:08 am), I suspect those US government buildings are the ugly way they are because the US architectural establishment enforces conformity to the same political style as the UK one pushes over here.

  • Such things still happen in America, as the Lonaberger building suggests.

    But I can assure you, worse things than Brutalist buildings exist.

    I’ve been inside the Weisman Art Museum. They haven’t the courage of their expression: inside is pretty much an ordinary building, though the rooms are oddly connected and vary in size.

  • CaptDMO

    Foot print.
    Ego vs. utility.
    What’s YOUR ratio?

  • JohnK


    Thanks for the information about the Weisman Art Museum.

    I don’t see any way in which that can be reasonably called architecture. It seems to be the product of a diseased mind, or is maybe an “emperor’s new clothes” type joke at the expense of Mr Weisman, who no doubt funded it.

    I do see a point to brutalism: look at the J. Edgar Hoover Building. It perfectly illustrates the nature of the FBI.

    For the most part, however, people just appreciate beauty in architecture: symmetry and order, good quality materials etc. Just because some Austrian weirdo declared that ornament was forbidden over a hundred years ago does not make it true, then or now.

    I love the idea that future federal buildings will be built according to the styles of classical architecture, but I would like it even more if there were no more federal buildings anywhere, ever. I can only hope that is President Trump’s intention.

  • NickM

    I gotta disagree with Trump here… If there is one thing large swathes of the USA (DC in particular) doesn’t need more of it is neo-classical architecture.

  • Chester Draws

    Calling them “Brutalist” is too kind.

    It’s also completely wrong. Brutalism was barely seen in America, even when it was the rage elsewhere, and no-one has built in it for decades. If you don’t know what the term means, don’t use it. There are some georgeous Brutalist buildings, and some ugly ones — it’s not a synonym for ugly.

    The problem is scale. You can build a big building in a classical style, but you simply cannot build an enormous building. Now, if the aim is to prevent government expanding it’s size, then sure, but why not just stop hiring them if that is your aim?

    If the Pentagon was being built today, how do you argue it should be built? To build it in stone would be 1) ruinously expensive, and 2) would be very, very heavy (sink into the ground, heavy) and 3) impractical with regards to lighting and airflow. You need to build it out of steel and concrete because that’s cost effective and practical from an engineering point of view. Which means you need an architectural style based on steel and concrete, not one based on stone.

    If you built a genuinely big building in faux-Roman it would look utterly hideous. That style was perfect for the scale the Romans built in, and impractical for modern purposes. When they built really big — the Colosseum — they built in concrete and a simple repeated basic plan. The building is interesting, but not great architecture. If you built it today, it would be accused of being “Brutalist” and ugly. Some of their other big buildings (Hadrian’s tomb, say) really weren’t much chop as architecture, because they were too big.

    There are a lot of stupid people in the world, but the problems of modern architecture are not caused by stupidity. They are caused by a system where public buildings cannot eat up half the national budget, like the palaces of kings did, and are on a modern scale.

  • Kalashnikat:

    One of the interesting things is when those old buildings get reconverted to new purposes. Friendly’s restaurants, for example, had a distinctive look on the outside, and the two we had locally converted to something else. I don’t know how many of the old Howard Johnson’s restaurants with the orange roofs are still standing.

  • bobby b

    If one reads the actual exec order, it’s clear that Trump isn’t ordering the use of pure classical architecture. Read carefully, it really only says “don’t build ugly crap anymore.”

    It also says that the final approval of a design must no longer rest in the hands of architects only, but in public panels of people who are specifically NOT architects.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Speaking for myself, i submit that the Weisman Art Museum is not as much of an eyesore as brutalist architecture. Although it would be, if we were to see many more Weisman Art Museums. It’s all about rarity. (I’d say ‘diversity’ if the word had not been abused.)

  • Myno

    The Weisman looks like transporter failure.

  • Paul Marks

    Donald Trump made his name as a modernist – his buildings are very much in the modernist style. However, that was in New York City – which was dominated by sky scrapers and so on, before Donald Trump built anything. He built in keeping with the existing “street scene”.

    Washington D.C. is not a modernist city – it is a city built in the Classical style. So the practice of building Modernist buildings (or building Modernist extensions on existing Classical Buildings) looks horribly out-of-place.

    So the Executive Order by President Trump is correct – but I have simpler solution.

    Do not build any more Federal Government building at all (in any style) – make do with the buildings that already exist.

    If they are overcrowded – then reduce the number of Federal employers (and things the Federal Government does).

  • Paul Marks

    Chester Draws – the Pentagon was built in 18 months (yes I know that modern materials were used – there is no reason why such such materials can not be used in a traditional style) and has served very well (although I, most likely, would have left people in their old buildings – Parkinson’s Law and all that) – it even did well when it hit by an aircraft on 9/11 (certainly better than the steel Modernist Twin Towers did).

    Nor is a vast building normally needed.

    Cass Gilbert vetoed the idea of a much larger Supreme Court building – his 1930s Supreme Court building was built in a traditional style (as is his West Virginia Capitol building – also built in the 1930s and one of the more attractive Capitol buildings). It is “small” (by your standards) because it does not need to be big – most government buildings do not (the old State Capitol in Delaware was like a normal Victorian “big house” and it was perfectly fine).

    Cass Gilbert was perfectly capable of building modern buildings – for example his Woolworth Tower was the tallest building in the world till the 1930s and has lasted well for more than 100 years.

    One builds in order to fit the function – is that not what the Modernists said?

    And the function of a Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. and a commercial Office Block in New York City are DIFFERENT – therefore they should not look the same.

    Nor should Modernist buildings mess up the street scene in a Classical style town (such as Washington D.C.).

    I am not sure what you have got against Hadrian’s tomb – which is both attractive and has served well in various functions for almost two thousand years (I suspect that nothing you produce will have such a record).

    As for big Classical buildings not working – well you are mistaken as the Colosseum was built in the Roman Classical style (it is lots and lots of Roman arches – with ornament) although I certainly do not approve of its function.

    As for large Classical buildings looking horrible – you clearly have never seen the Texas State Capitol, which is large-Classical-and-attractive.

    You have a nice day now.

  • Paul Marks

    That the Woolworth Building created by Cass Gilbert more than a century ago is more attractive than the Modernists Twin Towers (which existed from 1973 to 2001) is obvious (even after the rather nasty “restoration”) – but is it stronger?

    I have a feeling that it would have done better if hit by an aircraft – but I do NOT know.

    Does anyone have any knowledge on that?

  • I don’t know from the Woolworth Building, but the Empire State Building was hit squarely by a B-25 bomber in 1945 and lived through it, though three crewmen on the plane and eleven people in the building died.


  • Julie near Chicago

    Ellen, thanks ever so for bringing this important matter to our attention. (Although in this case I am tempted to ignore the information delivered by my lying eyes.)

    I think we should all get together and send bobby a Care Package full of delectable comestibles. Enough to see him through the coming disaster years when no food will be available because people in general will have been driven out of their minds by their architectural environment, with which we are simply not evolved to cope.

    This would include bobby himself, if he decides not to become a full-time rover but rather to continue spending a fair amount of time within, say, 3,000 mi. of the Weisberger — that is to say, somewhere on the (mostly) North-American land mass. He is more to be pitied than censured for this, of course.

    Come on, everybody, man up! (Including all of us gals, of course. We after all are the ones who really won WW II, due to our flying weapons ships overseas to those poor Europeans including Brits, besides which we fought on the home front here by entertaining the civilian populace by forming a baseball league of our own. –I know this because I saw the movie.) bobby is intelligent and a good soul, well worth saving if we can.

    (Really, best to remove him from The Environment altogether; else he will certainly get cooties. Remember the sad story of the oil tanker whose front fell off and the ship had to be taken right outside the environment.)

  • Schrodinger's Dog

    Myno, (February 22nd, 10:37pm) Love the comment. So true.

  • bobby b

    Ha! Food will be no worry, though, if I need to drive past the Weisman too many times. It’s on the bank of the Mississippi River, adjacent to one of the main bridges across, right at the University, and you can’t miss it if you cross, and it can blind you at the right time of day, and it usually quells my appetite.

    It’s all stainless steel cladding, and gets very bright in the sun. But, for all that effort and expense, it’s pretty boring inside.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, I personally wouldn’t risk getting any closer than this to it. May the Great Frog grant that its barking-mad look is worse than its effect on our consciousnesses.

    Best to keep your distance, bobby.


  • Marius

    if we were to see many more Weisman Art Museums

    Well you did ask…

  • Paul Marks

    So it was Ellen – so it was.

    By the way the old Delaware State Capitol building was Georgian (why did I type “Victorian”?).

    The new Delaware State Capitol building (finished in the 1930s) is also nice.

  • Paul Marks

    Marius – this Frank G. person must be using some skill to build things that are so twisted and distorted (a bit like paintings by Picasso – he could paint, he made a CHOICE to paint as he did).

    The question is – why? Why build in a distorted, twisted, way?

    I do not deny the skill it shows (it shows a lot of skill) – but I do not know why anyone would choose to build like that.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Actually, i am beginning to like the Gehry style. Some of his buildings are too shiny for my taste, some are too extravagant, but on the whole i find them a breath of fresh air.

    And another thing: he designed his own house in the same style, and that when he was not yet famous. Unlike many other people, he does not inflict on others what he would not tolerate for himself.

  • Mr Ed

    Why can’t the good President return the District of Columbia to its original pre-Columbian, pre-Jacobean state?

  • Marius
    February 23, 2020 at 9:53 am

    if we were to see many more Weisman Art Museums

    Well you did ask…

    My eyes, they burn! (The giant golf club was worth a look.) I also like the Robot Building in Bangkok. As a general rule, though, buildings come out better when the architect wasn’t on LSD.

  • Ferox

    Why can’t the good President return the District of Columbia to its original pre-Columbian, pre-Jacobean state?

    Wouldn’t it be an irony if Trump drained the swamp by recreating a swamp?

  • bobby b

    “As a general rule, though, buildings come out better when the architect wasn’t on LSD.”

    Amen. But just consider . . .

    The Weisman only got built because a UofM conference room full of Rich Old White Guys – a picture of sobriety if there ever was one – agreed that they would spend their millions on it.

    Contact high? Mass hypnosis? Or just a deep desire to be considered cool?

    (I’ve built buildings off of blueprints. I cannot imagine the contractor’s reaction to his first glimpse of these.)

  • Bloke on M4


    “Actually, i am beginning to like the Gehry style. Some of his buildings are too shiny for my taste, some are too extravagant, but on the whole i find them a breath of fresh air.”

    They generally aren’t good buildings, though. I know someone who stayed in the student accomodation he built and all those curves meant you couldn’t put a poster on a wall. if you had a bed or a cupboard, you got lots of wasted space. All these fancy “starchitect” buildings are designed to make a statement about a place, above the functional use. The new Birmingham Library is supposed to be awful for its use of light.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Snorri Godhi writes,

    Actually, i am beginning to like the Gehry style. Some of his buildings are too shiny for my taste, some are too extravagant, but on the whole i find them a breath of fresh air.

    And another thing: he designed his own house in the same style, and that when he was not yet famous. Unlike many other people, he does not inflict on others what he would not tolerate for himself.

    I agree in finding Frank Gehry’s style rather fun. I wouldn’t want to work or live in one, and I wouldn’t commission one even if I had the money to, but I don’t demand that others share my preferences. Sad to say, though, it seems Mr Gehry is willing to inflict his style on others by force:

    Frank Gehry Says He Prefers a Fashionable Dictator to Democracy When it Comes to Creating Architecture.

    I concede that there is a problem for libertarians with democracy and (private sector) architecture. Why should a person who wants to build on his own land with his own money in a certain way be forbidden to? I think in principle this clash of rights can be solved by making it possible for different communities to have different rules, so the people who value living in a place where the harmonious line of the street isn’t broken by a twisted thing that looks like it came about (as Myno said) through a transporter malfunction warping local space can live in a community where that will not happen.

    But the problem of the boring townsfolk going beyond their just rights to demand conformity from the visionary architect isn’t solved by the architect getting his friend the dictator to send his goons round to their houses with guns to demand conformity from them on pain of imprisonment or worse.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Why should a person who wants to build on his own land with his own money in a certain way be forbidden to?

    I understand that is just the case in Houston: anybody can build what they want on their own land. That helps to keep house prices low.

    At the opposite extreme, i met a young German lady who complained that Market Hill (ie Market Square) in Cambridge has a ‘broken’ profile because the buildings are not all of the same height.

    Another experience that i had was working in a Computer Science Dept. building that often overheated in summer. In the Netherlands, it is (or was) necessary to have the architect’s consent to install sunshade awnings, and the architect would not consent: he complained that it’s the computers that generate too much heat. Eventually, he relented.

    WRT the liveability of Gehry’s architecture: i believe that form should be subordinate to function, but there is some room for maneuver. Curved exterior walls can perhaps add value by offering sweeping views from non-corner rooms.