A 2021 Moment In Architecture That May Define The Future

A 2021 Moment In Architecture That May Define The Future

Some years end up being cultural pivot points. 2021 was one such year, with COVID-19 as the first existential threat to our culture since World War II. Architecture will change as a result, and may evolve in public perception to value motivations as a criteria for understanding it, versus valuing outcomes as the validation of any particular aesthetic.

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I think this shift had a unique 2021 moment in American design history, when the cultural fixation on the outcome of style was revealed to be absurd. In that brief moment the matter and anti-matter of style in architecture touched and exploded. In 2018 the Trump Administration had nominated Justin Shubow, the President of the National Civic Art Society to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The Society’s mission is “…advancing the classical tradition in architecture…” Shubow stated that "contemporary architecture is by and large a failure, ugly, strange, and off-putting, that has created a built environment that is degraded…”. When Trump lost the presidency, Shubow was elected chairman of the Commission in January of 2021.

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Humphrey Building (HHS Headquarters) Washington DC. Image © CivicArt

One result of the administration's end and the ascendance of Shubow to the Commission presidency was a last-minute effort to redraft the federal order “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” first issued in 1962. The new order would ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings. There would be a new “President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture.” Its stated intent was “to update the policies guiding Federal architecture to ... ensure that architects designing Federal buildings serve their clients, the American people.” The Trump Administration desperately tried to define beauty in that executive order to promote “beautiful Federal civic architecture.”

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Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright, NYC 1959. Image Courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

Any number of mainstream architects rose up to declare that classical architecture embodied fascism, while any number of traditionalist architects decried modernism and modernists as literally evil.

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William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building Washington DC. The New Post Office Building. Image via Wikimedia Commons

These style wars would be sad if the entire debate wasn’t so stupid. “Style” is an outcome, not a motivation, and in architecture, outcomes are the tips of icebergs of effort. To trivialize the motivations of these outcomes based on “style” into either “fascist” or “evil” motives is inane. Even the results of the October 2020 Harris Poll made to assess Americans’ preferred architecture for federal buildings shows about 30% of Americans prefer Modern (evil) architecture, while 70% favor Traditional (fascist) architecture. There is no orthodoxy, no exclusive truth in any "style" of architecture.

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Northwestern National Life Insurance Buliding by Minoru Yamasaki and Associates, 1964. Image via Wikimedia Commons

This tiny comic opera of bellicose projections turned out to be completely tone deaf. Architecture may be leaving a century of top-down systemic organization, but that has nothing to do with “style.” Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs sees the folly of the pretense of posturing “It’s perfectly understandable to me that the right has given words like nostalgia, history, culture, and tradition a bad name… But it is a mistake to reject the cultural inheritance of humankind on the theory that nostalgia is for Nazis. We should not accept the false choice between cold, discordant minimalism and Trumpian fakery. Something wholly new and much better is possible. If we can find it, it can offer an alternative to trying to relive the past.”

The Trump administration was voted out of office, Shubow and his majority of Classicist members of the Commission refused to resign and were dismissed. But this melodrama was both pantomime and cliché. The gist of the very schism itself lies in the need of humans to define the realities of building that reflects the human need to control.

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Wolson County Courthouse, Wilson NC. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Architecture is human, and embodies all our foibles, prejudices, nobility and arrogance. But beauty is human too, maybe 2022 will allow that reality to be fully appreciated.

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Cite: Duo Dickinson. "A 2021 Moment In Architecture That May Define The Future" 14 Dec 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/973453/a-2021-moment-in-architecture-that-may-define-the-future> ISSN 0719-8884

Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University, Gordon Bunshaft, 1963.. Image via Barry Winiker / Getty Images

2021年,可能是影响未来建筑的一年

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