Gavin Stamp believed in what he saw. Roger Scruton saw what he believed in
The National Civic Art Society (NCAS) is a Washington communion of persons-about-the arts, committee wallahs, busybodies. Its board includes PRs, discerning chain restaurateurs (Buffalo Wild Wings), asset managers, lobbyists and the author of Traditional American Rooms and Handbook Of Classical Architecture For Today — those dim, depressing titles explicitly announce the schtick of this groupuscule which is so favourably regarded by the repellent Trump that an executive order is likely to be made prescribing that all new government buildings should be in classical and “historic humanistic” styles. These include the Gothic and the Romanesque.
Mike Lee, a Utah senator and Mormon advocate for more children (provided they are Mormon), gushes incontinently that these are the styles that made Salt Lake Temple “the most beautiful building in the American West”.
Is the poor klutz blind? It was designed by Brigham Young’s brother-in-law. So, then, not just a startlingly crass, ill-proportioned lump of approximately neo-Gothic illiteracy but equally of some latter-day version of the Old Pals Act. This is pertinent because today’s “classical” and “traditional” architects comprise a cultish coterie: their commissions are almost exclusively from patrons defined by an abhorrence of modernism — which they seem to believe is a homogeneous monolith even though it is reliably protean whilst classicism stalled a couple of thousand years back and exists only in the form of countless repetitions: the same old tune over and over — but ever worse.
Gavin Stamp got it right when he derided the “leading” English classicist Quinlan Terry: “sheer incompetence … pedantic and unimaginative … a victim of that perennial curse: Palladianism … classical details stuck on to dull boxes”. Roger Scruton, who had no eye, considered Terry “our greatest living architect”, which is embarrassingly silly. Stamp believed in what he saw. Scruton saw what he believed in.
This polarisation of modernism in its many forms and of classicism in its many (doggedly unexplored) forms generally ends up in a slanging match: the modernists calling the classicists fascist and the classicists screeching that modernists are communists. This is evidently playground stuff. The real gulf is between on the one hand imitation, architecture by rote, and on the other invention and tectonic imagination, even though that imagination may be coloured by pastiche and plagiarism (both dirty words in the architectural lexicon though not as dirty as “nostalgia” which borders on blasphemous). There can be no question that architects, if they are to live a life beyond loft conversions, have to be shameless anilinguists and if that means cosying up to some of the most unpleasant people on the planet, so be it. And if one of the most unpleasant people has been eliminated by terrorists they must now begin again and ingratiate themselves with the valiant freedom fighters who have eliminated their way to power. Talleyrand was a graduate of l’École des Beaux Arts.
There are few buildings, modern or classical, which do not refer, wittingly or not, to previous buildings. There are equally few buildings of any period, in any idiom, which are much good. The blanket condemnation of the excitements of 1960s brutalism or the wilful perversity of 1860s modern gothic is as unconsidered as the knee-jerk approbation of Georgian squares and Wealden villages. To judge architecture according to style, school or “genre” is tempting but lazy. To judge any art by style is lazy.
But then Trump is lazy and the NCAS is evangelically single issue: it is akin to the risible Societé pour l’Esthétique de France which 70 years ago brought a feeble case against Le Corbusier on the grounds that his Unité d’Habitation was “insufficiently French” (thrown out).
The attraction of classicism to Trump is, like much of his politics, attention grabbing, an act of gestural immodesty, yet at the same time corrective of his reputation as immodest. The first syllable is class, class is good, class isn’t real bad, class isn’t evil … evil. Classtic is class. Classticism is class with extra letters on the end, folks. What classticism says about the world’s most mortgaged man is that he has class. And then some. Nothing gaudy. Or loud. Hold the gilt, hold the neon, hold the flash. Pure class. It’s not Vegas, it’s not Miami. Think Paestum in Europe’s Italy. Think Agrigento. It’s New-Trump-On-Potomac.
There are few buildings, modern or classical, which do not refer, wittingly or not, to previous buildings
As grands projets go, clipping columnar orders onto office blocks is almost offensively inoffensive, the architectural equivalent of a doily. It’s as though he’s learning a tie knot that’s not a Windsor. More than likely however this is just a start, the germ of something rather bigger. What Washington does in the last days of his first term the entire nation will do in Trump’s long second. Were the administration to commission the inimitable Mark Foster Gage (rogue classicist, computer-driven gothicist, maximalist modernist) Trump would bequeath to his exhausted nation a remarkable legacy.
Some hope. For lurking among the ranks of the NCAS’s celluloid collars there are almost certainly some aspirant Albert Speers. The war criminal and luckiest man at Nuremberg has an astonishing following among a certain caste of gullible aesthetes who are ever on the qui vive for a patron who will sub them to realise their tawdry fantasies. They have found him.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe