In What Technology Wants (Penguin Books, 2011), author and Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly argues that technologies persist despite their inevitable obsolescence. A common assumption is that outdated technologies—whether a stone ax, a medieval helmet, or a VHS player—eventually die. Yet, Kelly writes, “species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct.” For example, “you can buy a brand-new flint knife, flaked by hand and carefully attached to an antler-horn handle by tightly wound leather straps. “In every respect it is precisely the same technology as a flint knife made 30,000 years ago.”
Society’s enduring interest in obsolete technologies may partly explain our tireless appreciation for historical architecture. Like the new flint knife, this admiration is directed not only at the preservation of the past but also at its recreation. This otherwise healthy phenomenon demonstrates a respect for history, provides significant educational value, and maintains an appreciation for handcrafted techniques (not to mention a supply of replacement parts). Current knowledge of past methods is also critical for maintaining historical edifices and artifacts.
Given this line of reasoning, the architecture community’s vehement backlash against the White House’s recent executive order mandating a “classical” style for all new federal buildings has sparked curiosity among non-architects. Much has been written about the restriction of stylistic freedom, the lack of relevance to contemporary work and lifestyles, and the problematic symbolism of colonial imagery. These are all sound arguments.
However, there is a less frequently discussed reason that the “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” executive order is ill-considered—one that pertains to technology and meaning. Mandating ancient Roman and Greek classicism in new construction today is, with few exceptions, a grossly inauthentic practice.
Consider the next federal courthouse to be built in this way. Such a project will be profoundly influenced by today’s budgetary, schedule, technological, and labor force realities. Without the luxuries of outsize financing, an extension of several decades, and the unlikely assimilation of a large crew possessing relatively rare building expertise, the edifice will be a modern structure in every way but appearance. In contrast to the loadbearing, hand-tooled stone structures built entirely with manual labor that MFBBA aims to perpetuate, one will expect non-loadbearing, thin- or faux-stone veneer-clad steel structures made with significant mechanical assistance. The outcome of this approach is the antithesis of Kelly’s flint knife, which is “precisely the same technology” as its predecessor. Instead, it is a bastardization of today’s techniques coerced into shaping a neo-historical artifact—a flint knife made of cheap plastic.
Is such an approach wrong? After all, is emulation not a sincere form of flattery? To be sure, mimicry, simulation, disguise, and camouflage can be effective design methods when applied strategically and in specific contexts. However, the executive order calling for the universal application of such practices in all new federal buildings represents an entirely different approach regarding the expression of national values.
For example, the executive order advocates the “embodiment of America’s ideals” in architecture. However, the act of building neoclassical structures today, in the context of the practical realities outlined above, inherently lacks authenticity and integrity. In this way, the presidential order effectively espouses image over substance in the communication of our country’s ideals and “national values.” Yet as George Washington once wrote in a 1794 letter: “this we know, that it is not difficult by concealment of some facts, & the exaggeration of others, (where there is an influence) to bias a well-meaning mind—at least for a time—truth will ultimately prevail where pains is taken to bring it to light.”
Classical architecture is not the problem. Neither are its building methods. The extant Greek and Roman structures are an invaluable treasure for human societies and should be responsibly preserved. Students should also study the methods deployed in their construction, at times via authentic physical re-creation, to appreciate the history of technology fully. Yet to remake this architecture only by superficial means is to oppose the universal principles of truth, honesty, and respect—both for history and for the users of these buildings. The valid rebuttals against MFBBA that advocate freedom, pragmatism, and cultural sensitivity are thoroughly sufficient arguments against its execution. That said, the need for truth in action represents an additional, fundamental criticism of this executive order.
So here’s my challenge: If Trump wishes to authorize the construction of the next major federal building to be "in rigorous adherence with authentic building practices from Greek and Roman times," so be it. I dare him to try.
Blaine Brownell, FAIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.