Google “Trump,” “federal architecture,” and “Albert Speer” and you’ll get a boatload of results, thanks to recent leaks of a draft White House executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” The order mandates a reorientation of Uncle Sam’s architectural patronage along traditional—and above all, classical—lines.
What a fabulous idea. Yet a Yale historian sees it as a prelude to “fascism” and “genocide.” And journalists, some of them going to bat for the dismal status quo administered by General Services Administration bureaucrats in cahoots with the American Institute of Architects, have had no difficulty eliciting cris de coeur from the classical camp. Plenty of classical architects can’t stand Trump or have (or hope to have) patrons who can’t stand Trump or are wary of young architecture pupils who can’t stand Trump being turned off to classicism. And beyond the dreaded Trump taint, there is the Speer taint—the fact that Hitler’s architect and urban planner was the classicist Albert Speer. It is a specious indictment modernists have exploited since the end of World War II. And it’s taking on new life because for many of those who loathe him, Trump is some sort of crypto-Hitler. Or at least a crypto-Mussolini.
All this architectural-guilt-by-political-association silliness could serve as a valuable teaching moment. The relevant text on the matter is one many classicists know and admire. It’s architect and urban planner Léon Krier’s brilliant essay “An Architecture of Desire,” the introduction to his monograph on Speer’s oeuvre, originally published in 1985 and reissued three decades later.
“Classical architecture is not political,” Krier observes. “It is an instrument of politics, for better or worse.” And again: “Following the defeat of National Socialism and Fascism, the political conscience of all modern states has continuously confused the universal powers of classical architecture and the classical architecture of specific political powers.” Modernist ideologues have fomented this confusion.