A 2021 architectural moment that can define the future
Some years end up being cultural hubs. 2021 was one of those years, with COVID-19 as the first existential threat to our culture since World War II. The architecture will change accordingly and could evolve in the public perception to value the motivations as a criterion of understanding, rather than to value the results as the validation of a particular aesthetic.
I think this change had a unique moment in American design history in 2021, when the cultural fixation on the outcome of style turned out to be absurd. In this brief moment, the matter and the anti-matter of style in architecture touched and exploded. In 2018, the Trump administration appointed Justin Shubow as president of the National Civic Art Society on the United States Commission on Fine Arts. The Company’s mission is to “… advance the classical tradition in architecture …” Shubow stated that “contemporary architecture is on the whole a failure, ugly, strange and off-putting, which has created an environment frame which is degraded … ”. When Trump lost the presidency, Shubow was elected chairman of the Commission in January 2021.
One of the results of the end of the administration and of Shubow’s ascension to the chairmanship of the Commission was a last-minute effort to revise the federal decree “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture”, issued for the first time in 1962. The new order would ensure that “the classical architectural style will be the preferred and default style” for new and modernized federal buildings. There would be a new “President’s Committee for the Re-embellishment of Federal Architecture”. Its stated intention was to “update the policies guiding federal architecture to … ensure that architects designing federal buildings serve their clients, the American people.” The Trump administration has desperately tried to define beauty in this executive order to promote “beautiful federal civic architecture.”
A number of traditional architects have risen to declare that classical architecture embodied fascism, while a number of traditionalist architects decried Modernism and Modernists as literally bad.
These style wars would be sad if the whole debate wasn’t so stupid. “Style” is a result, not a motivation, and in architecture, results are just the tip of the icebergs of effort. To trivialize the motivations for these results on the basis of “style” into “fascist” or “evil” motives makes no sense. Even the results of the October 2020 Harris poll conducted to rate Americans’ preferred architecture for federal buildings show that about 30% of Americans prefer modern (evil) architecture, while 70% prefer traditional architecture ( fascist). There is no orthodoxy, no exclusive truth in any “style” of architecture.
This little comic opera with belligerent projections turned out to be completely deaf. Architecture may be leaving a century of top-down systemic organization, but that has nothing to do with “style.” Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs sees the folly of pretending to arise “It is perfectly understandable to me that the Right has given words like nostalgia, history, culture and tradition a bad name … But it is a mistake to dismiss it. cultural heritage of humanity. on the theory that nostalgia is for the Nazis. We must not accept the false choice between cold and jarring minimalism and Trumpian deception. Something completely new and much better is possible. If we can find it, it may provide an alternative to trying to relive the past. “
The Trump administration was removed from office, Shubow and his majority of classic Commissioners refused to step down and were fired. But this melodrama was both pantomime and cliché. The gist of the schism itself lies in the need for humans to define constructive realities that reflect the human need for control.
Architecture is human and embodies all of our weaknesses, prejudices, nobility and arrogance. But beauty is also human, maybe 2022 will allow this reality to be fully appreciated.