Metropolis

“Classical” Architecture Is Just One Way Tyrants Build in Their Own Image

Trump’s draft plan for federal buildings has something in common with 20th century fascists—and 21st century strongmen.

Donald Trump walks by three massive white columns.
President Donald Trump walks to a motorcade from the North Portico of the White House on July 5, 2018. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, during the winter in his second term, Hungary’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán, ordered the installation of a new statue in one of Budapest’s oldest squares. The unveiling of the statue, which depicts Hungary as the archangel Gabriel being attacked by an eagle representing Germany, sparked days of protests from critics, who accused Orbán of attempting to obscure the country’s role in the murder of nearly half a million of its citizens during the Holocaust.

“Erecting a public statue always bears with it an intrinsic meaning beyond the statue itself,” Orbán said in a speech that year at the unveiling of a different war memorial, where he proselytized his brand of nationalism and urged voters to reject the “disintegrated liberal era.” He continued, “There is a reason why revolutions and world wars often begin with the toppling of statues.”

For centuries, autocrats, authoritarians, and dictators have held a fascination with using architecture as a political tool to glorify their regimes, often while also dismissing modern architectural styles as lowbrow, cold, or weak. The current crop of far-right world leaders with authoritarian impulses is no different—and that now appears to include President Donald Trump.

Last week, the trade magazine Architectural Record obtained a copy of a draft executive order from the White House, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” that would require newly built or upgraded federal structures to hew to “the classical architectural style.” It doesn’t strictly specify what the “classical” style encompasses, but it cites the infrastructure of “republican Rome” as its inspiration. While the order is only a draft, figures in and out of the field took it seriously enough to condemn it. The plan appalled the 163-year-old American Institute of Architects, which called the draft order’s “uniform style mandate” antithetical to democratic ideals. D.C.’s urban planning director was more blunt: “It is authoritarian,” he wrote on Twitter.

The nonprofit that has reportedly lobbied in favor of the draft order, the National Civic Art Society, has called modern architecture “ugly, strange, and off-putting”; in a manifesto on its website, the group writes that “the classical tradition, harkening back to democratic Athens and republican Rome, is time-honored and timeless. It is unparalleled in its dignity, beauty, and harmony.” Some of that language is copied verbatim in the Trump administration’s draft order. No wonder: Trump has appointed two members of the National Civic Art Society to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts.

As many critics of the draft order have pointed out, while there is much to appreciate in classical and neoclassical buildings, admirers of these styles have long included authoritarians who see these schools as embodying the glory of the state. Adolf Hitler notoriously held a fascination with classical architecture, as did other fascist leaders of his time. When totalitarianism flourished across Europe, so did “fascist architecture,” or the construction of new federal monuments and buildings in the same architectural style. More than just a way to telegraph leaders’ political vision for the country, it was a way to inspire and reinforce national unity, inextricably weaving together lived experience and political philosophy. At the heart of all that building was a belief that architecture could be a political statement about whom society serves and what it values.

A similar logic undergirds Trump’s draft order. “Federal building designs should … inspire the public for their aesthetics, make Americans feel proud of our public buildings,” it reads. “Classical and traditional architectural styles have proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government.” Frequently, the leaders who adopted a national architectural aesthetic styled themselves as economic populists, investing in federally funded infrastructure projects to signal a kind of economic rebirth.

In Benito Mussolini’s Italy, this meant a slate of new post offices, courthouses, train stations, and public squares. Hitler, meanwhile, had the Nazi architect Ludwig Ruff design a new hall of Congress for the party. Both leaders prized a style called “stripped classicism,” which borrowed heavily from Greco-Roman silhouettes but cleared them of their ornament.

With the resurgence of far-right nationalism in the new century, echoes of fascist architecture have found their way back again. But it’s not a shared insistence of classicism’s superiority that links the contemporary examples: Not every would-be authoritarian is obsessed with Grecian columns. What links them is how they want to use architecture to inspire a kind of superiority—of the leader over his predecessors, and of the state over others.

Last month, the influential Danish architect Bjarke Ingels faced backlash from his contemporaries when he was photographed smiling next to Brazil’s hard-right populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has defended torture and opposes same-sex marriage, abortion, gun laws, and immigration. (Not incidentally, Bolsonaro had to fire his culture minister last month after the man, Roberto Alvim, borrowed from a 1933 Nazi propaganda speech by Joseph Goebbels while announcing a nearly $5 million investment in an arts grant program.)

Bolsonaro is now seeking Ingels’ help in developing a tourism master plan for Brazil’s northeast, the country’s poorest region, with the goal of doubling the country’s overall tourism by 2022. Responding to criticism of his “fact-finding mission,” Ingels told the Guardian, “The road to ethical impact as an architect is to [propose] the future we want to companies and governments, even if they have different views.” Ingels is somewhat of an aesthetic chameleon who has referred to his own work as both “pragmatic utopianism” and “hedonistic sustainability.”

But for Bolsonaro, who openly admires Trump and lusts after relationships with wealthier countries, Ingels’ style is beyond the point. After decades of creeping development in the region, attracting luxury investment is within Bolsonaro’s grasp. Never mind that it won’t be for everyone —“we can’t let this place become known as a gay tourism paradise,” he said last April. He’s made clear that whatever he builds, he builds exclusively for the like-minded.

Like Bolsonaro, the Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, has promised to revive his country through the act of building itself, with the number of new infrastructure projects in the pipeline both the vehicle for and measure of his political success. Duterte, who reigns over a country where an estimated 22,000 people have died in extrajudicial killings, promised upon taking office that his term would usher in a “golden age of infrastructure.” His administration has coined the term “DuterteNomics” to describe the strategy.

Included in a list of 100 major development projects Duterte wants to launch before his term ends in 2022 is building a new city north of Manila, called New Clark, from scratch. (Authoritarians love to raise cities where none exist. Mussolini famously oversaw the development of a city called Latina, now a provincial capital that was erected from swampland.) Duterte has promised that New Clark City will prioritize climate resilience, and renderings of it look like stills from the glittering new landscape of Abu Dhabi. In Duterte’s Philippines, there is no room for the classical aesthetic of the past—only aggressive modernity in both form and function.

Of course, this is the Philippines that Duterte wants the world to see, instead of the way it actually is: a place where neofeudalism has contributed to a 22 percent poverty rate and left tens of thousands of peasant farmers without any rights to the soil they work. But it is New Clark City, Duterte says, that will be his “legacy project,” or as the country’s press shop puts it, “a showcase to the world of the Philippines’ cultural identity.”

Orbán, meanwhile, is preoccupied with the explicitly symbolic: He wants to spend nearly $800 million to turn a 250-acre park in Budapest into a grove of national monuments. Across the Danube River, Orbán ordered that the city’s National Gallery of Art be moved from its home in a centuries-old castle that used to host Hungarian kings so that he may relocate his offices to the campus. Critics have, in turn, suggested that he has an “edifice complex.”

Like his foreign compatriots, Trump has attempted to repurpose old monuments for personal gain. He is currently weathering a multistate lawsuit over his continued financial involvement in D.C.’s Trump International Hotel, the least garish commercial property in his portfolio by virtue of its location in the iconic Romanesque Old Post Office Building.

“You just couldn’t build something like this today,” Ivanka Trump said of the building in 2014, admiring its glass atrium, granite turrets, and detailed wainscoting. Chiming in, her father indicated that the building signals a stratum of wealth that he covets, citing its double-bay windows and 16-foot ceilings—“unheard-of in a hotel,” he told the New York Times. “Today, you couldn’t even buy a piece of it. When the U.S. was so rich, this is the way they would build them,” he said. Some 30 years after a failed attempt to build a medieval castle on New York City’s Madison Avenue, he finally got his turreted tower.

It’s true that Trump is not an obvious champion of “classical” architecture and that the Trump International in D.C. is an outlier among his holdings. Most Trump properties tend to look more like cigarettes wearing body armor than replicas of the Parthenon. But as is typical of real estate developers, Trump shares the authoritarian’s impulse to remake cities in his image. And there’s nothing quite like a string of uniformly styled federal buildings sprawled across the country to bolster the Trump brand, particularly when their presence is supposed to “physically symbolize” American greatness, as the draft order proclaims.

In 2016, then–presidential candidate Trump promised voters a $1 trillion national infrastructure plan. Two years later, during his 2018 State of the Union address, he called for a budget that would allow the country to “build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land.” While he has since suggested creating a $20 billion fund to build structures of “national significance” that would “lift the American spirit, that are the next-century-type of infrastructure,” it remains unfunded. Instead, he is turning his eye to design.

The White House’s draft order—which singles out federal courthouses in Austin and Miami, among other buildings, as having “little aesthetic appeal”—reflects Trump’s political instincts: to obscure the ugliness of need, to erase the blight of diversity. They recall his previous denigrations of America, from its cities (Baltimore is “disgusting, rat and rodent-infested”) to its people (the homeless “ruin those cities,” and one of the two dozen women who accused him of sexual assault is “not my type”).

Like the gilded disco flash of Trump’s hotels in Vancouver and Las Vegas, the fetishization of the Greco-Roman aesthetic is stuck in time—too on-the-nose to signal true style, too lazy to telegraph real greatness or creativity of thought. In the Trump era, it’s just another vehicle for projected nostalgia. When you prize only the veneer of functionality, making America greater is just a matter of putting up some marble columns.