Trump and Ugly Modernism?
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Originally posted here: https://classicstopica.wixsite.com/topica/post/ugly-modernism
The recent article from the Guardian confronts the dangers of combining neoclassical architecture with white elitist ideals of beauty and democracy. Looking ‘classical’ has indeed supported power structures with problematic and exclusive values. This has been the objective of totalitarian regimes which have taken the classical aesthetic to symbolize their solidity, eternity, and legitimacy.
As a consequence, present-day buildings built in neo-classical style to ‘elevate’ and to ‘inspire’, can represent a dangerously unbroken, and uncontested continuation of this past. And unfortunately, the link between classical art and conservative political order continues to be perpetuated, pigeon-holing what ‘classical’ can mean. An exhibition like Chaos and Classicism at the Guggenheim in 2011, when Kenneth Silver examined the ‘powerful desire for regenerative order and classical beauty' upheld the idea that ‘at its best, Classicism is a language of democratic ideals, beauty and balance, with the power to redeem.’ And it certainly was, for many artists and architects – as we see with the Neue Sachlikeit, and Novecento.
But, the classical does not just mean order and it has also meant revolution. Pitting Le Corbusier against classicism creates a particularly false contrast. When Corbusier, the ‘giant of modernist architecture’ wrote the City of Tomorrow, he sought to define his own ‘universal classicism’. This was possible, because ‘Modern’, and ‘classical’, are elusive categories. They are left open to interpretation. And it is precisely because the classical and the modern trade off each-other as categories, that they are politicised.
Architecture’s endless war between the classical and the modernist has leaked into politics again.
India Block is right, therefore, when she begins here. But this article, to a degree, has failed to pick apart the politics of classicism that it describes. Of course, Neoclassicism is different to modernism. But Neo-classicism is just one iteration of classicism. Modernism can be, and has been classical. This is surely a point already well made and established by much excellent scholarship on classical modernity.
What is political is who gets to redefine, or claim what the classical is. Corbusier’s classicism stood against, for example, what the French artist André Lhote described in 1920. Lhote acknowledged “two races of artists” and two classical traditions, one being Italian, and the other French. French Classicism must preserve, he said, ‘fidelity to the traditions of the race’ and the French ‘fragrance.’ Such a reading of Classicism underpinned the polemical, far-right politics of the Action Française.
Through these debates, Classicism has acquired an ideological force which it has never lost. So too for Trump, whose executive order defines ‘classical’ architecture as buildings including Gothic, Romanesque, Spanish, Mediterranean and other traditional styles’ (I’m sure the Gothic architects would be horrified). – To my understanding this would bill post 1950s architecture as valueless, and make it a candidate for destruction. And so, it is clearly advantageous for Trump to define modernism in antithesis to the classical, branding it ‘ugly’ in order to proclaim the return of inspiring values, under the aegis of ‘classical architecture’.
In Rome of 1870, value judgments were similarly imposed upon the past, to create a suitable aesthetic for the glorious capital, The Third Rome. Ancient monuments were of course privileged, the medieval were vilified, and the contemporary, discarded. ‘Hygiene and decorum’ brought about the destruction of the Jewish ghetto, for the new national monument, the Vittoriano.[6
Associating modernity or modernism with decline, and classicism with rebirth, was clearly a feature of the 19th to 20th century. It is startling that Trump applies the same principles here. The writer therefore rightly warns in her conclusion that erasing diversity and recasting the city in the classical image, is a form of ‘aesthetic time travel…far more appealing to those who see classical architecture as a comforting symbol of their former power’. To remedy this, we must, as she says, defend diversity.
Agreed. But we need to be careful if implying that architects who are building for brighter futures, cannot engage with the ‘classical’. We need to engage with the diversity of what classical means. In short, we should remember that classical does not equal, neo-classical. So when Robert Ivy writes, that building in the image of 19th century classicism is anachronistic at the level of forms and technologies, we know that it is also anachronistic, because we reflect on what this idea of classicism represents.
"In the 21st century, we're very different people from the people who popularized Greek Revival architecture in the 19th century, as beautiful as it was," he says. "To try to force-fit new systems in old forms is, in of itself difficult to do, inefficient, and is not who we are today."
I am no architect but surely the principle holds strong, that classicism is an equally changing and definitively modern idea. Architects who engage with this idea to create new forms, help to continually reshape both what it means to be modern, and to be classical. It is crucial to keep adding nuance to this discourse.
At a Fascist heritage conference held last year in Cambridge, Speer’s ruin theory, was described to me by Alexander Schmidt, as ‘a ghost’. Ruin theory was inserted into Speer’s memoirs much later. No drawings have been found – it is false. If Trump is engaging with these ideas, as India Block suggests, perhaps this is a fateful omen.
 See Gans, D. The Le Corbusier Guide. 17. See also https://www.architectural-review.com/architects/le-corbusier/the-classical-ideals-of-le-corbusier/8619974.article  Prettejohn, E. The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture. Princeton, 2012.  Lhote, A. “The Two Cubisms. II.” Athenaeum, April 30 (1920): 579.  Hulme, T. E. “Romanticism and Classicism.” In Read, H. (ed.) Speculations. Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art. London: Trubner & Co., 1936.  Michael Silk recently spoke at the Classical Reception Seminar Series in Cambridge, on the importance of the ‘allegory’ from antiquity to present day, to this effect.  Kirk, T. The Architecture of Modern Italy. The Challenge of Tradition, 1750-1990. Princeton, 2005.  Heritage in the Making: Dealing with Legacies of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Cambridge, 2019.