Beauty over Brutalism

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 9/11

In December 2020, during the final weeks of his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” The order instructed that federal public buildings should “uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, and command respect from the general public.” With an eye toward continuing the tradition of American civic architecture visible in our nation’s most prominent buildings and monuments—and reversing the brutalist trend in civic architecture since the 1950s—the order established traditional and classical architecture as the preferred style for federal buildings. Any design plans that diverge from the standard must “clearly convey … the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of America’s system of self-government.”

If you’re wondering why the number of concrete monstrosities in our nation’s capital still seems as high as ever, the order was only in effect for three months before being revoked by President Biden. The revocation immediately earned the praise of the American Institute of Architects and other organizations, who declared that Biden’s move promoted democracy and allowed for the construction of “healthy, just and equitable communities.”

As it turns out, however, the democratic case for brutalist architecture—or, at least, any style but the traditionally beautiful—is far from sound (shocking, I know). Surveys show that Americans overwhelmingly prefer classical and traditional styles for federal buildings, regardless of demographic or political affiliation. Although individual preferences may vary, there is a widely shared conception of architectural beauty that is reflected in the buildings and monuments that have stood the test of time.

But why should we care about internecine debates among American architects? The answer is simple: beauty matters. More specifically, the beauty of public spaces and institutions matters. Civic architecture—the buildings and monuments that give structure to our public life—connects America’s past to its future, showing us what our forefathers found worth preserving and providing us with an opportunity to pass a similar message on to those who will follow in our footsteps. When constructed with care and attention, public buildings cultivate a sense of respect and awe in citizens that leads them to appreciate their nation’s past and fight for its future.

The inverse is also true. When a nation neglects its civic architecture, whether by allowing it to grow decrepit or by disregarding traditional standards of beauty, it loses the respect of its citizens. It should come as no surprise, then, that American citizens stand eager and ready to cast aside both their history and their culture.

In this week’s featured article, National Association of Scholars Director of Research David Randall explains how the degradation of America’s civic architecture contributes to the destruction of our public history, most notably apparent in many Americans’ willingness to cast down public monuments without a second thought.

Brutal mobs and brutalist architects both deface America’s civic architecture, as part of the broader campaign to erase America’s memory of itself. The educators of the mobs do the most obvious damage, but the patrons of brutalism perhaps do worse, for their architecture’s sheer ugliness exemplifies and contributes to the degradation of Americans’ civic sensibility. It also saps the loyalty of our citizenry. Who will be loyal to a republic which cannot inspire an architecture of beauty? Why defend a country which can think of nothing better to memorialize itself than a gash in the ground?

Disordered public aesthetics contribute to disordered public morals. America must reclaim the judgment that enables it to patronize beautiful architecture, not least because to do so will lend it strength to act with equal judgment to restore liberty and law to our land. Send off the brutalist architects, and then we will send off the brutal mobs.

The battle over America’s history extends far beyond the classroom. It’s not only about textbooks and teachers—it’s about the physical structures that support public life and shape public sentiment. If we want citizens to understand that our nation is worth preserving, we should ensure that our civic architecture stands the test of time.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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