Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Trump, Speer, and the Queen of Hearts

In February 2020, Architectural Record reported that the Trump White House was considering an executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” While few would disagree with such an innocuous-sounding goal, Trump’s fiat is intended to put a noose around creativity until it sings Trump to the high heavens. Not so innocuous when you see the hubris behind the decree. 
The draft for the executive order mandates that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new federal buildings. Unnoticed by the general public in this time of corona virus, the EO may seem trivial on its face. Most people don’t understand why architects would be agitated by the proposal. Generally, the public does not care about this issue. Who can blame them when there are so many immediately obvious threats hanging over our health, our democracy, the world economy.  Too many important things to occupy our worried minds. But “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is loaded with so many political and philosophical cluster bombs it stands — whether actually enacted or not — as a glaring emblem for all that is wrong with Trump World. There is so much malevolence in this one EO it is difficult to unpack all of its dangers. But we will try.

In 1931 a German architect named Albert Speer joined the Nazi party. In short order he became Hitler’s confidant and chief architect. Possessing great natural talent and a flare for the dramatic, Speer orchestrated extravagant architectural backdrops for Hitler’s Nazi domination fantasies. Some of Speer’s creations were so grandiose they were unbuilt or unbuildable. Like the proposed Volkshalle intended to seat 150,000 people under a vast Neoclassical dome 820 feet in diameter and nearly as tall as the Empire State Building.  Here der Führer could address his adoring fans with rousing speeches composed of lies, impossible promises, and impassioned pleas to make Germany great again. (Need we even ask if this sounds familiar?) Another unbuilt design was Deutsches Stadion which would have accommodated 400,000 people for Nazi rallies in an outdoor venue.  
Other Speer buildings did actually get built. One of his most brilliant designs was little more than a stage set: what came to be known as the Cathedral of Light. For his annual mass rally in 1933, Hitler wanted a huge new stadium. But time ran out before the stadium could be completed. Speer punted by creating a virtual space. He commandeered 152 massive searchlights from the Lufwaffe. Arranged around the stadium at 39 foot intervals, their powerful 5-foot-diameter lenses were aimed straight up to make a colonnade of light. It could be seen from five miles distant. The monumental effect stirred German pride in service to the Third Reich.  
Speer was adept at eliciting powerful emotions from his brick-and-mortar designs as well. The German Pavilion at the 1937 World Fair in Paris and Hitler’s Chancellery headquarters in Berlin were both designed to intimidate. A Nazi architectural style emerged, incited by Hitler’s megalomania and executed by Speer with relish. 
Nazi architecture had two characteristics. First, everything was up-scaled to impress. Columns were taller than they needed to be, rooms were vast, processional hallways long and grand. Second, the style was invariably a pared-down version of Classical architecture. Intending to borrow the authority of timeless Greek and Roman forms, this bare-bones classicism was also influenced by then-current Art Deco modernism. But the real intent was to shock and awe. Hitler wanted an architecture that would legitimize his power and Speer was happy to oblige. Nazi architecture had a dystopian edge from the very beginning. Somber, cruel, dreadful. Dreadful in the real sense of the word: one is full of dread just gazing at pictures of the evil empire’s architectural fever dreams. Hitler understood that the glorification of his ego through public works could manipulate people as effectively as his finely-crafted speeches. It was all theater. (Again, does this sound familiar?)
Albert Speer's "Cathedral of Light".
Politics and architecture intersected in Nazi Germany. Architecture was manipulated to produce results amicable to the regime. The same impulse is the motivation behind the executive order being considered by the White House. The White House clearly perceives Classical architecture as a symbol of power and authority. We know this because Trump has already used the most vulgar forms of traditional architecture to display his wealth and establish his authority. (Try Googling images of his Trump Tower lair with its gilt excesses.) This shouldn’t be a surprise; every two-bit potentate has employed the same strategy. But Trump is an amateur. Speer celebrated Nazi corruption with fearless panache; the White House proposal is just a feeble grasping at perceived bygone glory.  
To avoid confusion, let’s be precise on exactly what type of  transgression we are criticizing. Architects are not incensed that Trump thinks the only “good” style is Classical. There are many practitioners who still specialize in Neoclassical architecture and approach it with sincere reverence. I have myself dabbled in the field and enjoy the occasional Doric column as much as the next guy. But even diehard proponents of classical architecture are dismayed by Trump’s EO. One, Michael Lykoudis, dean of architecture at Notre Dame, claims it “reduces an entire architectural philosophy to caricature.”  What is wrong here is the imperial willfulness of the Trump regime. Nobody cares if Trump’s personal tastes skew to the antique; it is his desire to impose his tastes on everybody — architects, government agencies, postal patron that rankles -- and his assumption that imperial architecture will convince everyone of his imperial-ness. 

When Alice was in Wonderland she encountered the Queen of Hearts. The Queen, being a queen, only wanted things one way: her way. Her preferred color for roses was red, not white. So her minions painted the roses red. A game of croquet in the Queen’s realm was never what it seemed. At the queen’s orders, flamingos acted as croquet mallets while terrified hedgehogs avoided being the targets. For all who defied the Queen’s wishes it was “off with their heads!” 
Trump wields his executive orders like the Queen’s scepter, forcing all of us through the looking glass into Trump World. When I mention this particular executive order it is met with disbelief.  Surely, that’s not true. Or, maybe you misunderstood. But for over three years we all have witnessed his attempts to create a bizarre world built on autocratic fantasy. This is true, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. In the realm of the Queen of Hearts, all orders, no matter how irrational, must be obeyed. Otherwise it is “off with their heads!” 
Trump’s proposed EO almost seems whimsical, but he has already put in place the mechanisms to enforce it. Architecture in Washington passes before the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts (CFA). One might think their review would provide a certain amount of protection against such arbitrary rules. But Trump has already appointed a new member to the CFA, Justin Shubow.  Mr. Shubow is not even an architect, but he is president of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), an organization devoted to the promotion of Classical architecture. The NCAS web site proclaims that “contemporary architecture is… a failure.”  Mr. Shubow’s organization believes architecture should “return to its pre-Modernist roots.” Trump reinforced Mr. Shubow’s appointment by adding two additional NCAS members to the CFA. 

I usually avoid any discussions that conflate architecture with politics. They are not related in any way, but there are times in history when it is made to seem so. Art movements come and go, are reviled or proclaimed, promoted or suppressed. But one can be certain that anytime the state gets involved in such distinctions, it is a sure sign of bigger shenanigans going on.  Now, as in Nazi Germany, politics and architecture once again intersect. Not in exactly the same way, but with the same amount of hubris and megalomania. With overwhelming dismay from architects, this proposed order may never see the light of day. But it should be (yet another) warning sign that something is amiss in Washington. Trump does not have at his command the talent of an Albert Speer, but he is crashing around the hallowed halls of government like a drunken Queen of Hearts. How much damage can our institutions endure under such relentless attack? 
God save us from the Queen. 


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