The National Guard in Washington, D.C., just prior to President Biden's inauguration
Flickr/National Guard/Creative Commons License The National Guard in Washington, D.C., just prior to President Biden's inauguration

So much for Classicism’s moment. What was supposed to be the embodiment of our civic culture was not so much attacked by Trump’s mob a few weeks ago as it was ignored. Yes, the would-be insurrectionists did some damage to the Capitol Building (and tragically killed a Capitol police officer) but mainly they treated it as their lounge and toilet. They did not seem to care much for the symbolism that many current exponents of the style thought held such power.

President Biden also paid little homage to the Classicism during his inauguration. He covered the National Mall with grids of flags and rows of lights, to honor those who have died from COVID-19. He masked the Capitol behind white scaffolding and, by necessity, turned a place of gathering into a virtual affair, an exclusive version of a sparsely attended tea party. He made no attempt to rebrand the style as part of a new political direction.

Part of the problem for Classicism as a bulwark of civic symbolism is that, apart from simple monuments in the style, it does not play well on TV. That is especially true for the interiors of most public buildings, which, apart from a few ceremonial spaces, usually cater to mundane activities that do not benefit from Classicism’s general suppression of function and expression. In the case of the Capitol, you can enjoy the proper backdrop by standing on the steps overlooking the National Mall. But when the politicians hold forth from one of the congressional chambers, all that viewers at home can see are talking heads and a tally of votes. The columns, domes, and pediments don’t appear on-screen.

The National Mall during President Biden's inauguration
Flickr/Joint Chiefs of Staff/Creative Commons License The National Mall during President Biden's inauguration

So much also for the cynical alignment that some of Classicism’s most ardent supporters brokered with the Trump administration. In him they thought they had found a champion. The former first lady, after all, built a bad Neo-Classical folly as a tennis pavilion on the White House grounds. And the ex-president himself wanted to tear down the Brutalist FBI building in Washington, D.C., so that he could develop that prime real estate. In their opportunism, the Classicists ignored many things, including the fact that Trump preferred gold, glass, and other cheap, flashy forms of architecture for his own buildings.

The average Trump supporter has even less use for the style. They tend not to gather in front of historic monuments, but rather prefer stadia, convention halls, and airport hangers where they can show their might. They are, after all, populists, and architecture to them symbolizes imposed order.

The tennis pavilion at the White House

The response to the storming of the Capitol, meanwhile, was even more architecture: Hundreds of soldiers turned the building into a makeshift bunkroom, and the barriers erected on avenues, stairs, and terraces to symbolize and effect the correct flow of power relegated the Classical temples to the background. Worse, the new additions obscured the building’s forms and uses.

Classicism finds itself in a state of trivial misuse, the default style of McMansions and paste-on attempts to make suburban office buildings look grand—a problem that has deep roots, but that has been exacerbated by the Trump administration, its allies at the National Civic Art Society, and by the pandemic. Our current isolation and separation have made civic space of little concern during our day-to-day to reality.

That does not suggest, of course, that architecture cannot be a carrier of meaning, a frame for civic intent, and an embodiment of shared values. It just means that there must be a stronger connection between those higher ambitions and our lived and shared reality. Civic architecture should be an elevation, distillation, and above all an open and continually contested arena of daily life. We need to find ways to design towards that goal.

During this period of limbo, many of us have binge-watched television (or what stands in for that medium these days). I would suggest that in this on-screen vernacular we can find the elements and images that we can transform into a truly shared and sustainable civic space. I would start, for instance, with the British director Steve McQueen’s masterful series of films, "Small Axe," currently showing on Amazon. McQueen’s ability to delineate civic space in a house party, a restaurant, a street corner, or even a police academy is remarkable. His subject might be alien to most Americans (West African immigrant life in London in the 1960s and 1970s), but his techniques, observations, and scene-setting offer up important lessons.

In this country, several generations of photographers and video artists have done something similar. If I were looking to create civic space in Trump country, I would turn to the example set by Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, or to artists such as Theaster Gates, Kerry James Marshall, Sarah Sze, or Mark Bradford. Their ability to find luminosity, hope, and common space—as well as horror and violence—in the leftover scenes of our industrial landscape can serve as a guide.

What I am calling for, in other words, is to go beyond not only Classicism or Modernism, but also beyond the polite modesty of those who call for a streamlined vernacular or a retrograde form of small-town urbanism. I am suggesting that it is in the leftovers, the "deplorable" parts of our landscape, and in the ways that our citizens of all colors have, through their daily lives and aspirations, ennobled them into scenes of potential beauty, that might we might find the source of a new kind of civic space.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.