A City of Marble, A City of Concrete: Competing visions for what America should be

New US presidents usually reserve their initial months in office for only the most urgent policy priorities, to take advantage of that fleeting moment of opportunity when their popularity is at its highest point and their agenda encounters the least political resistance. It might thus seem surprising that President Biden, just four weeks after his inauguration, should turn his attention to the architecture of public buildings. On February 24, 2021, Biden revoked an executive order issued by President Trump, “Promoting Beautiful Civic Architecture”, that had recognised classical architecture as the preferred style for federal buildings and discouraged the use of modernist architecture in federal construction projects. Why, when the highly anticipated COVID relief bill still had not been passed, would Biden be paying attention to matters of building design?

Washington DC is a planned capital city whose spatial design is meant to be a symbol both of the American government’s power, and of the national narratives that the government models for citizens. Public architecture in Washington DC is dominated by two styles. Federal buildings from the 19th century and early 20th century are built in the classical style, which draws inspiration from the civic architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Federal buildings from the second half of the 20th century are built in the brutalist style, which is a descendant of continental European modernism and Bauhaus design.

The government buildings that line the wide avenues of DC’s National Mall are more than just the physical headquarters of public administration; they are symbols of the ideological tension between two visions for what America should be, expressed through the medium of architecture. The design of federal buildings represents the ongoing debate between libertarian and globalist value systems, between a society of farmers and a society of technocrats. The polished marble curves of classical architecture represent the republican utopia of the American founding; the raw concrete angles of brutalist architecture embody the internationalist aspirations of the postwar era.

The White House, the Congress Building, and the Supreme Court are built in the classical style as well as the monuments in honour of the founders, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Classical architecture is the physical embodiment of the constitutional system of checks and balances, which constrains central government authority and guarantees individual freedom. 

The political ideology of the American founders was heavily influenced by the 17th century European Enlightenment, especially the ideals of individualism and natural rights. Enlightenment thinkers, in turn, formulated their vision by drawing upon the Greco-Roman political philosophies of democracy and republicanism. Enlightenment and Classical thought prized logic and critical analysis, questioning the legitimacy of power systems rather than accepting the narratives of authority figures. These ideas inspired the American founders in developing a constitutional philosophy that prized decentralisation and local autonomy, in reaction to the recent experience of colonial rule. The narrative was that to be an American is to have the right to one’s own piece of land and to minimal government interference in one’s personal affairs.

Like America at the time of the founding, classical Greece and Rome were participatory democracies that gave landowning male citizens a direct voice in self-government. The farmer-statesman was the archetype of the “ideal citizen”. Early American art elevated George Washington to the role of ideal citizen, telling his story as a president who refused an offer of monarchy and retired to his farm after saving the country from crisis. George Washington is portrayed in monuments and statues as Cincinnatus, a legendary 4th-Century BC Roman military dictator who used his emergency powers only as long as was necessary to save the Roman republic from foreign invasion, thereupon he immediately abdicated his title and returned to plowing his farm. These military leaders traded the sword for the plow, a ritualistic act portrayed in art for narrative-setting. The power of the state was to be used parsimoniously, mainly to keep foreign intruders from threatening private property rights.

With their marble colonnades, triangular pediments, and wide staircases, the classical buildings of Washington DC are reminiscent of public buildings in Athens or Rome. The use of classical architecture portrays America as the grown child of Greco-Roman civilisation, reviving their two-thousand-year-old utopian dream of individual participation in civic life. The vast grassy lawns that surround DC’s classical buildings evoke the ancient public spaces, the Greek agora and the Roman forum, where citizen landowners exercised their rights to free assembly and voting by secret ballot. As a result of these design choices, the buildings appear approachable to the pedestrian, accessible as a right of citizenship.

After having emerged victorious from World War II, America suddenly found itself occupying half of the European continent. As the US government continually expanded its peacetime military and economic influence in Europe, American political elites gradually redefined the nation as belonging to a larger transatlantic community, united with Western Europe by common values and common heritage. The construction of a shared identity served to legitimise the American security protectorate over its European trading partners. The new American nation was a political and moral empire, one in which technocratic administrators replaced landowners as the primary decision-makers. This was a society organised around the meritocracy of credentialism, not the natural rights of citizenship. The power of the state was to be used expansively, to reshape the world in America’s image.

The transatlantic political-economic construct extended to visual culture as well. Postwar American art and architecture borrowed heavily from interwar European modernist and abstractionist movements, such as the Bauhaus, that prized function over beauty. New York City positioned itself as the global capital of art and design, carrying forward the stylistic innovations of its European brethren that had been interrupted by the war. America thus became the grown child of Germany and France, rather than of Greece and Rome. The new narrative was that to be an American is to be a global citizen, part of an international consumer society, shielded from risk by government regulation.

It was at this transformational moment, in the mid-1950s, that the US government encouraged the use of modernist architecture in the construction of federal buildings. Brutalism thus became the design style for the headquarters of the executive-branch agencies that were created after World War II to oversee the consolidation of the new nation: one with an economy powered by global trade in high-tech industries, protected by a social safety net and a powerful national security apparatus. The government had become a patron of the people, no longer a commons for the people. The headquarters of the Department of Energy, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Health and Human Services all are built in the brutalist style.

In Europe, the shift to using concrete for public building construction was a practical necessity due to acute postwar shortages; in America, it was a conscious ideological choice. Brutalist architecture was perfectly suited to represent the new American narrative because brutalism itself is a transnational phenomenon, a conceptual synthesis of modernist styles developed across continental Europe; its name is derived either from Swedish or from French, depending on which architectural critic you ask. With its monumental proportions and utilitarian forms, brutalist architecture projects a narrative of universalism, to legitimise America’s emergence as a global military-industrial superpower. Gone are the polished surfaces and graceful curves of classical architecture; the new public buildings are hulking blocs of concrete, rough edges and raw façades. In the place of grassy lawns, the new buildings rise, immense, from a sea of bare concrete pavement. Their design is to inspire awe, not to welcome the pedestrian. These are buildings for administrators, not for the people. Brutalism has come to symbolise the expansion of central executive power at the expense of local autonomy and direct democracy.

The nationhood narratives constructed by political elites are only meant to grant legitimacy to themselves, the minority in power. Excluded from the farmer-statesman archetype were enslaved people, indigenous communities, non-landowners, and women. Excluded from the global citizen archetype are the millions of working-class and middle-class Americans for whom transcontinental freedom of movement is a distant theoretical concept rather than an attainable reality. Although they don’t represent the lived experience of the majority, nationhood narratives are able to achieve broader societal resonance by being incorporated into public memory through the visual arts and through spatial design.  That is why civic architecture is so politically important, because it shapes our understanding of who we are and of what our society should be.

The ideological struggle between libertarianism and globalism in American political life is as contentious as it is far from being resolved. Although President Trump certainly was no farmer-statesman, his “America First” foreign policy was a genuine counter-reaction to the societal consequences of unrestrained globalism, which has raised the prestige of a few elites while pushing the rest of the population into economic stagnation and precarity. The intent of Trump’s executive order on architecture was to repudiate brutalism, both for how it looks aesthetically and for what it represents ideologically. 

It is precisely this symbolic association, between brutalist architecture and America’s assumption of a superpower role in the world, that explains why President Biden considered it important to revoke Trump’s order that would have marginalised brutalism in civic architecture. Biden, an internationalist who came of age during the Cold War and who previously headed the Senate’s foreign policy committee, truly believes in the postwar utopian narrative of American universalism. Biden’s executive action was as if to tell the world, “America’s back!” — because brutalism expresses American power in the way that the globalists want to conceive of it.

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