That philosophy resulted in a country full of strange, modern buildings, but it didn’t make traditionalists happy. Organizations like the National Civic Art Society led battles against more outré expressions of contemporary art on Federal property. In 2019 the critic Catesby Leigh wrote “Why America Needs Classical Architecture” for City Journal, arguing that glassy modernism, slab-sided brutalism, and janky deconstructivism don’t have the dignity with which a government should comport itself. He calls the Austin courthouse a Rubik’s Cube and the San Francisco building “billboard-like.”
Which, I mean, OK—aesthetics are subjective. The President, himself a real estate developer, is famous for a certain overstuffed marble-and-gold vibe—a poor architect’s idea of a rich building, to paraphrase Fran Leibowitz. Like Leigh, I’ve never been a fan of the San Francisco federal building. But I like the Austin cube, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Leigh goes off the rails when he says modernist pioneer Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center in Chicago “raises serious issues of appropriateness” and that its arcing red Alexander Calder sculpture is “better suited to the high-end corporate world and its promotion of itself as culturally au courant.” When he knocks an Iowa courthouse as looking too much like a medical science building to “evoke the majesty of the law,” he loses me utterly. It’s not clear to me that government is manifestly more majestic than science. I have a bias. So do we all.
It’s also fair to say that the Design Excellence Program produced buildings that got pushback. The National Civic Arts Society points to decades of local resistance. (Its adherents now include three Trump appointees on the committee that watchdogs Washington DC architecture.) When it comes to architecture, people tend to resist change. Today’s architectural climate lets people fight affordable housing by citing “neighborhood character” and landmarking gas stations and mid-century commodity fire stations. They’ll find new architectural value in buildings that got as much resistance when they were built as any of the GSA’s Design Excellence courthouses. If Boston’s brutalist city hall is worth “reconsideration,” anything will be someday.
What’s Leigh’s answer to all that? Well, it’s Greek to him. Specifically, the columns, capitals, domes, pediments, and cornices of neoclassicism—all the things that made capitol buildings seem so trustworthy (until the Gilded Age) and Main St. bank buildings seem so permanent and reliable (until the Depression).
Arguably neoclassicism had its apotheosis at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, at which a cabal of the country’s best architects and designers collaborated on a grand plaza of matched buildings that’d be seen by millions. The Exposition set the tone for the City Beautiful movement for decades.
It was also mostly a lie, based on a misunderstanding, designed to bolster a hegemony. The buildings were intentionally impermanent, built on the same metal frameworks that all the great European world’s fairs were. Think Eiffel Tower, but flimsier and more flammable. And over that the Chicago designers applied facades made mostly of a moldable, reinforced plaster material called staff. It was theater, no more classical than Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. And it was all painted bright white—to look like Roman ruins, but also to subtly reinforce the authoritarian themes of the Expo, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of European arrival in North America and the fulfillment of America’s manifest destiny. All the international, multiethnic, multicolored vernacular architecture got banished to the Midway. The main Court of Honor, meant to represent the coming American century, was white … literally, symbolically, and metaphorically.