The Classicists Strike Back

The Chicago Tribune‘s Blair Kamin reports on an obscure battle in the endless war between the traditionalists and the modernists. Last year the U.S. General Services  Administration chose Thomas Gordon Smith, once the dean of the Notre Dame  School of Architecture, as its chief architect. Smith was a neo-classicist determined to put a stop to the rampant modernism infecting public buildings–the Thom Mayne Syndrome, if you will. Smith wanted government buildings to return to the classical style of the early Republic–forgetting not only twentieth-century modernism, but also nineteenth-century Beaux Arts style. However, the modernists won this particular skirmish, forcing the GSA to relegate Smith to an advisory role.

Then Carol Ross Barney (I seem to recall that she was the first woman to head up an architecture firm in Chicago, but I could be wrong about that) was chosen to design a federal building and courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Republican Senator Richard Shelby objected to Barney’s abstract take on classicism. Perhaps he found it too feminine. The job went to another Chicago architect, Thomas Beeby, whose Harold Washington Library Center is so aggressively classicist it’s actually kind of lurid.

I don’t know what Senator Shelby and the GSA had in mind for Tuscaloosa, but I would imagine they would be happy with an architectural version of the Roman legion classicism of Jean-Jacques David’s Oath of the Horatii. There’s nothing inherently wrong with classicism. As Richard Meier and Mies van der Rohe have both demonstrated, classicism and modernism aren’t irreconcilable. But in the current context of our now tattered imperial ambitions and widespread cultural reaction, the GSA’s turn toward the classical recalls an early flash point in the battle against the modern, Weimar Germany. Walter Benjamin dismissed Weimar neo-classicism as a "symptom of reaction," a revolt against modernity led by conservative elites. Benjamin regarded post-Renaissance classicism as inherently deceptive, flattering power with false totalities. Baroque allegory was one of several movements that tried to cut through its specious harmonies. Baudelairan proto-modernism was another.  Benjamin was heavily influenced by early modernism and the baroque as he refined his critical practice in the 1920’s. Benjamin used a baroque eye to recognize how conservatives were using classicism to show "the compatibility of Weimar and Sedan," of  traditional German culture and militarism–years before Hitler made the combination the house style of the Reich.

The Weimar Republic existed in times even more politically charged than our own, and most likely the GSA classicists simply want people to trudge up marble steps before they do government business. But it’s important to note that for all the objections voiced against modernism (ugliness, obscurity, reckless indifference to popular tastes and the messiness of history), classicism has its own baggage. It’s not just a bunch of stately columns.

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