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Architecture and Politics: Strange Bedfellows

Many of us were cheered to observe the recent testimony before a congressional subcommittee about Frank Gehry’s proposed Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC, including members of the Eisenhower family and representatives of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS). For many of us, the concerns expressed about the proposed design represented a breakthrough for public discussion of Modernist architecture, its merits and deficiencies, as well as possible alternatives to it. But we would be naïve not to expect that the Modernist establishment would launch a counter-attack, and indeed it has.

An intemperate article in Architectural Record about a panel discussion on the general theme of monuments, co-sponsored by NCAS and the American Enterprise Institute, reduced the conversation to a conflict between Modernism and Classicism, which the author characterized as representing left-wing and right-wing politics, respectively. He accused those promoting a Classical design of “bashing” Modernism and advancing odious conservative political values. This attempt to turn a stylistic debate into a political one is nothing new and, in my view, based on an ignorance of history.

Government-sponsored public housing for workers in the Garbatella district, Rome, 1928-29, designed by Innocenzo Sabbatini. This and other housing projects in Rome, begun before the dictatorship but completed under it, were socially progressive and made explicit use of the architectural vocabulary of the historic center, in contrast with the modernist projects of the same time in Germany, whose industrial abstraction stood in sharp contrast with the adjacent built environment. Sadly, post-war housing projects in Europe and the United States alike followed the Bauhaus model instead of the Roman one. (Author photo)

Modernist critics have often equated a preference for Classical art with a conservative, reactionary or even fascist political commitment. One can, in fact, find plentiful examples of authoritarian and repressive regimes that have used the Classical language of architecture to express their aspirations for power and permanence. This is not surprising, considering that most regimes of whatever kind in human history have been authoritarian and repressive to a greater or lesser degree.

Democratic societies are historically exceptional, but they are also rarely distinguishable from the others by their architecture, despite arguments to the contrary from both proponents and critics of Classicism. Modernism, too, now just a century old, has been appropriated by both democratic and repressive regimes. The historical record shows that neither Classical nor Modernist expressions were consistently used by those societies that employed them, and often both stylistic tendencies were in use in the same country at the same time, making nonsense of any simplistic alignment between design and politics.

This was certainly the case between 1922 and 1942 in fascist Italy. Both Classical and modernizing tendencies were present before and during the Mussolini dictatorship. Italian architects working in the Classical tradition emphasized their continuity with the native tradition stretching back millennia; those embracing the Modern Movement promoted its universality based on industrial production and a new visual language of abstraction, which they characterized as representing progress.

Main Building, new campus for the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, 1932-35, by Marcello Piacentini. This building tries to unite symmetrical Classical composition with modernist abstraction and absence of ornament in the same way as Paul Cret’s Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington, DC, of the same time. This attempted synthesis, the closest thing to an official style under fascism in Italy, was an international phenomenon embraced by societies of diverse political character, but it rarely produced buildings of the highest quality. (Author photo)

Mussolini clearly saw the propaganda value of both positions; he supported both traditional and Modernist architecture for state commissions, refusing to embrace either as an official style, something that both groups lobbied intensively for. The dictator preferred to play the two camps off against one another, and, in the end, the closest thing to an official fascist style was the attempt by Marcello Piacentini and his allies to synthesize both. This compromise failed, producing a “worst of both worlds” scenario: all the stiff formalism of academic Classical planning coupled with the cold abstraction of unornamented Modernism. The humanistic and innovative designs of traditionalists like Gustavo Giovannoni, Innocenzo Sabattini and Armando Brasini or the undeniably provocative modernist work of Giuseppe Terragni and Adalberto Libera stand in sharp contrast to those sterile hybrids.

While the positions of the stylistic debate may have been sharply drawn, there was no political divide among Italian architects of the period because all architects had to be fascist party members if they wished to work at all. Post-war critics like Bruno Zevi tried to paint the modernists as anti-fascist at heart and the traditionalists as genuinely committed to the regime, but this is simply false. A classicist like Brasini indiscriminately designed projects in the same style for the king of Italy, the Pope, Mussolini and the Soviets — a political diversity or naiveté that got him into serious trouble with Il Duce.

The most ardent supporter of the fascist cause among the architects was the modernist Terragni, who designed the fascist party headquarters in Como, where his brother was the mayor. He remained fiercely loyal to Mussolini until the end. As the modernist Edoardo Persico wrote after the war, the only thing that separated the modernists from the traditionalists was style.

Fascist Party Headquarters, Como, Italy, 1932-36, by Giuseppe Terragni. An icon of the Modern Movement in architecture, the building, in the mind of its designer, perfectly expressed the values of the political movement it represented. The attempt by later critics to deny the political content of such designs, while attributing fascist values only to traditional work, is contrary to the political realities of the time. Traditionalists and modernists alike sought official sanction for their work; the two groups were separated only by their different views on architectural style. (Author photo)

The American experience in the same period includes the Classicism of the Roosevelt era, exhibiting a spectrum ranging from the formality of the Federal Triangle in Washington to the Piacentini-like hybrid of WPA-Moderne to jazzy Art Deco. Indeed, the official architecture of the countries that defeated fascism was, for the most part, indistinguishable from that employed by the enemy. Nothing much has changed today, when international Modernism of the deconstructivist variety appears everywhere from Los Angeles to Paris to Beijing, rendering meaningless any claim that it represents a political program other than perhaps globalization.

Roger Lewis, in a Washington Post column on May 19, attacked Classical architecture from a different angle, writing that “Classicism in America was an 18th- and 19th-century European import, embraced here because Americans admired and emulated European culture and architecture.” Lewis asserts that the resulting “one size fits all” formulaic style was unable to respond to modern life and technologies, in contrast with diverse and adaptable Modernism.

Like the political argument, this one also shows an astonishing ignorance of history. Americans did not import European culture and architecture because, unless they were brought to these shores as slaves or were members of indigenous populations, they were Europeans who brought their culture with them, adapting it in response to the conditions and requirements of the New World. The actual import was Modernism, an entirely European invention that was first embraced in this country by corporate and institutional elites and imposed on a flourishing traditional architectural culture in the 1930s and 1940s. That imposition, often enforced by repressive means, continues today. And anyone with eyes in his or her head can see which style has become formulaic and which one continues to offer variety and visual interest, whether along the streets of Washington, DC, or elsewhere.

In the end, architecture cannot be judged by its supposed non-architectural messages alone. Of course, it does carry messages, and we cannot avoid making associations, including political ones, though these usually have little relationship to what we can actually see in the forms themselves.

When a Classical column is denounced as a symbol of imperial rule or importation from abroad or a glass curtain wall is seen as a metaphor for political transparency and freedom, we should be skeptical. We cannot detach the forms we see from our individual or collective memories, but we can be more critical about such superficial associations and the inevitable contradictions that flow from them. We must refrain from labeling any style as “fascist” or “democratic” or “American.” Doing so only sows confusion.

Architects should design buildings and cities the way they think they should be and stop justifying or criticizing design decisions by making historically indefensible political associations, whether from the right or the left.


  1. Mike Rich
    June 20th, 2012 at 02:45 | #1

    Your exact,concise article has given me hope for a rebirth of beautiful,ornamented architecture.

  2. Deborah Budz-Merklin
    June 26th, 2012 at 18:15 | #2

    Thank you, Steve, for writing this article. Concerning the style of our built forms, the force of politics has so impressed the general populace and design community, that the spirits of freedom and beauty for even the simplest of human purposes or intentions have been missed altogether, or misunderstood and misinterpreted.

  3. June 26th, 2012 at 20:28 | #3

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. You are spot-on in your analysis. It was overdue amidst all the endless clamor about the Eisenhower memorial. I hope it gets republished elsewhere.

  4. June 27th, 2012 at 22:06 | #4

    Very well argued and fascinating photos to illustrate the salient points.You should definitely submit this as an Op Ed. Maybe the Wall Street Journal? They really need a breath of fresh, classical air in thier architecture coverage! I would love to see you a regular contributor.

  5. June 29th, 2012 at 16:41 | #5

    Thank you for these very encouraging comments. My study of the political cross-currents in inter-war Italy have been very revealing, if only so far “scratching the surface” of a deep and complex subject. I do not claim to be an expert–I leave the details to the historians–but it is important for all of us to be aware of, and know how to refute, the baseless arguments made by people who have an aesthetic agenda but seek to advance it by appeals to political positions. Wouldn’t the most democratic approach to architecture be to allow people to design what they think appropriate to every case, rather than dictate or prohibit styles through manipulative or coercive means? Same for schools of architecture, competitions, and publishing. The beautiful, sustainable, and just solution is not the property of any political movement, though it might be more likely to arise from a condition of freedom, respect, and civic engagement. Now that’s a politics we can all support!

  6. Udayan Sen
    August 1st, 2012 at 14:47 | #6

    This ongoing and still tiresome debate has its counterpart in that within the art and musical historical fields over facile connections between an artist’s biography and their work. As many writers and scholars from Winckelmann on have argued, style has its own internal logic and its own evolutionary process, free of immediate biographical or political contexts. Certainly artists, musicians, writers, architects and creative personalities in all areas, individually and collectively, bring to bear their specific experiences and cultural backgrounds upon their creative endeavors; but art itself is a living thing that in a sense speaks through these creators. Ultimately what remains is what was produced – in the case of architecture, what was built. And to expect to explain these buildings simply as a result of ephemeral political situations – although this may help to provide context – is naive at best, and justly deserving of the skepticism expressed in this good piece. Thank you.

  1. June 14th, 2012 at 15:05 | #1
  2. July 9th, 2012 at 19:07 | #2