And then something ugly happened. Incited by Trump, who explicitly directed crowds to take their rage to the Capitol, insurrectionists stormed through one of the most iconic examples of classical architecture in the United States. They broke windows and doors, smashed furniture, sprayed fire extinguishers, discharged chemicals near historic art works and generally brought mayhem to a building that is supposed to, by the president’s own executive order, promote the “dignity . . . and stability of America’s system of self-government.”
Before the attempted coup, architecture critics were debating the lasting impact of the president’s executive order. Now, they are talking about whether the damage to the Capitol should remain, in some form, as a permanent goad to memory, reminding visitors of the destruction wreaked by the president’s supporters. There is also grave concern about new security measures at the Capitol, a building that was once relatively open to the public, who came not just to admire its historic spaces, its paintings by John Trumbull and soaring dome decorated by Constantino Brumidi, but to sit face to face with their representatives and enact one of the basic accountability rituals of democratic government.
As with so many other questions of Trump’s legacy, there is confusion about how to connect the before and after of the Jan. 6 events.
The Dec. 21 executive order seemed, at the time, both risible and corrosive. It was intellectually vacuous, but also divisive in its attempt to mandate a single, historicist architectural style on almost all Federal buildings in the District of Columbia, and others around the country, including courthouses, agency headquarters and those expected to cost more than $50 million. By classical style, the authors meant architecture “derived from the forms, principles, and vocabulary of the architecture of Greek and Roman antiquity,” which would presumably exclude some of the most beloved buildings and monuments in the capital, including the East Building of the National Gallery and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Yet no one believed that the president was much involved with this document, in part because it was written grammatically with complete sentences and paragraphs, and because the president’s own real estate portfolio suggests no consistent architectural design preferences, beyond a taste for gilding and made-for-TV opulence.
Now, the discourse is about how all of this could have happened, how some considerable number of Americans who profess reflexive respect for the so-called symbols of democracy could attack one of the fundamental architectural symbols of democracy. Will the president be remembered for a mandate on classical architecture, or for a colossal act of iconoclasm, directed at the ideal embodiment of exactly the kind of architecture he claims to support?
There’s no contradiction between the supposed celebration of classical architecture as policy and the destruction of it in practice. And there were warning signs in the executive order on “beautiful” architecture that presaged the rage that overwhelmed the Capitol. To understand the connections, we must look a bit more closely at the Dec. 21 document, how it came to be, and what kinds of damage the insurrectionists did while they occupied by the Capitol building.
The executive order exists not because of the president’s interest in architecture, but because his managerial incompetence created a space into which architectural opportunists inserted themselves, steering the administration to its current position on classical design. The central architect of this was Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit which got its start trolling design review meetings for the Frank Gehry-designed Eisenhower memorial almost a decade ago.
Despite lacking any formal training in architecture, Shubow was appointed by Trump to the Commission of Fine Arts, the distinguished federal design oversight group that has, since 1910, played an important role in refining and guiding the design of government buildings. Shubow is likely the author or instigator of the executive order on classical architecture, which closely mirrors his ideas and obsessions, especially the maximalist position that only classical architecture is appropriate for federal buildings.
When a draft of the executive order was leaked in February, it was clear that someone had tailored the language to appeal to the president, including specific mention of the architectural style of his home at Mara Lago as among the acceptable historicist idioms. It also echoed one of the essential pillars of Trumpism, its contempt for “elites” and experts. It specifically disempowers architectural professionals in favor of “public opinion,” and defines the public as people who aren’t “artists, architects, engineers, art or architecture critics, instructors or professors of art or architecture, or members of the building industry” — precisely the people whose expertise will be necessary to repair the Capitol and clean its damaged art works.
It also included repeated references to beauty, which seemed to be aimed directly at the president, who uses the word frequently. The word is a rhetorical tick, an all-purpose intensifier, for the president, who invariably describes his fence on the country’s southern border as a “big, beautiful wall,” as well as employing the word to characterize coal, pipelines and, during the 2016 campaign, Ted Cruz getting booed. In his Jan. 6 speech that incited the acts of insurrection, he claimed falsely that stolen votes had robbed him of “a big, beautiful victory.”
By reiterating the word beautiful, however, the authors of the executive order didn’t just imitate the president’s rhetorical style, they seized upon the subjectivity of beauty — it is always “in the eye of the beholder” — to limit the diversity of federal architecture. A day after the executive order was released, the president announced four more appointments to the Commission of Fine Arts, all of them White men, all of them from a limited and sometimes ideologically combative traditionalist minority of designers. With the Trumpist takeover of the CFA complete, the body is now all White, all male and all in for one architectural style for the first time in generations.
There is another word in Trump’s executive order that is even more telling than beauty, and that is “clients.” The goal of beautiful architecture, the authors wrote, is to “ensure that architects designing Federal buildings serve their clients, the American people.”
That word seemed a lot more innocuous before angry insurrectionists shouted at Capitol Police phrases such as “we pay your salary” and “you work for us” and “this building is ours.” These are stock phrases of many protesters, but on Jan. 6, they took on new resonance, as does the word client. The problem isn’t the broad idea that our elected representatives work for us. They do. The problem is the idea that they work for me, or you, or anyone else, in an exclusive way, like a professional serves his or her clients. Government is simply too large, too manifold in its responsibilities, too diverse in the hundreds of millions of people it must serve to be imagined simply as your or my personal servant.
But that is what the rioters were demanding, unique ownership over the building and, by extension, an exclusive client relationship with the federal government, which must serve only their needs. That helps explain one of the more peculiar things that happened on Jan. 6, when rioters stormed the Capitol, beat down cops and defecated in the corridors, yet walked with relative respect between the velvet ropes in Statuary Hall. They attacked a symbol of democracy, but in a particular way. They didn’t specifically attack the paintings of Trumbull in the rotunda, which perpetuate basic historical fictions essential to White supremacy. Rather, they attacked the ability of other people — including the nation’s elected representatives — to use the building.
“Beauty is the beginning of terror,” wrote the poet Rilke, in a very different context. But it could serve as a motto for the curious architectural subplot of the Trump years, and perhaps for other chapters of the Trump regime, too. Beauty is a beautiful word, but it must be used with care, like government.
Few politicians in recent memory have spoken more often and more vaguely about beauty, but the word resonated with Trump’s followers, letting them project their ideas, their subjectivity, onto him. He offered to make the world beautiful again, for a targeted minority of Americans, who worry that life in a cosmopolitan, multiracial society will be bereft of the only kind of beauty they can imagine.
A few architectural ideologues heard the call, too, and now they have joined the fray. CFA members serve four-year terms, so their influence will continue, unless they destroy the moral gravitas and influence of the very body they have commandeered. The executive order on classical architecture could be rescinded on day one of a Biden administration, so it may be of little consequence. The damage to the Capitol, however, should be repaired only where necessary to the building’s stability and integrity, and left intact where it can serve a symbolic function.
Its message? Where some people see beauty, others see ugliness, and you can’t have a democracy unless it serves all its clients, including with architecture as diverse as its population.