Bauhaus Brutal: Biden Goes Full Federal Ugly

Last week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order (just one order!) that revoked no less than seven actions by the departed President Trump.1

With a stroke of his presidential pen on Feb. 24, Biden reversed the Orange Man on everything from financial regulation to labor relations to street rioting (yes, street rioting!) to… federal architecture.

Clearly, Biden is a man in a hurry. Apparently, he sees his job as one of eradicating all vestiges of the Trump era and grinding hated Trumpism into powder.

Just another day of President Unity, right?

It reminds me of how Rome systematically erased Etruscan civilization. The Romans wiped it out. And anymore, beneath the soil of Italy, only a few Etruscan shards remain here and there, uncovered every now and again by some intrepid archeologist.

Along these lines, and speaking of classical civilizations like Rome, let’s focus on Biden revoking Trump’s order about federal architecture. That alone tells us plenty.

In fact, by revoking Trump’s order on architecture, Biden chose to go “Bauhaus and Brutalist,” meaning full federal ugly.

Let’s dig into this…

Biden’s recent order is terse. It revokes Trump’s “Executive Order 13967 of Dec. 18, 2020 (Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture).”

Let’s decipher what’s really going on here.

First, understand that Biden himself doesn’t write executive orders. He has staff who work behind the scenes. And they have a “shock and awe” agenda, which I discussed here.

There are two ways to look at this shock and awe.

First, the U.S. government is now under Biden management. So anything Trump did was by definition bad, and it all has to go. Heave-ho!

Second, though, Trump hurt a lot of people’s feelings during his four years in office. They all have axes to grind and revenge to seek!

One constituency with a bad case of insult is the cabal of architects who work on federal construction projects. They’re hugely bent out of shape and thirsty for some Trump-blood.

Which gets back to something that Trump was actually good at, namely building large structures.

Unlike most politicians, Trump had a life and career before entering politics; he built things.

In fact, in his pre-president days, Trump oversaw the construction of more than 160 large complexes from golf courses and clubhouses to downtown skyscrapers. Trump worked in cities ranging from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Vancouver to the hills of Scotland and Ireland.

Say what you will about Trump, but c’mon, man… you actually have to know something to run large construction and building projects.

That is, you have to have some semblance of big picture design. You must understand permitting, scheduling and finance. And you must know about land use, drainage, architecture, structural steel, foundations, concrete, wiring, roofing, plumbing and much more.

It’s fair to say that Trump has a strong sense for this.

About a year ago in Feb. 2020, Trump sent the architectural world into apoplexy when he criticized the general ugliness of most modern federal architecture, such as federal buildings and courthouses.

Not one to sugar-coat his views, Trump called modern federal buildings constructed over the last five decades “undistinguished,” “uninspiring” and “just plain ugly.”2

You don’t have to be a fine art major to see Trump’s point. For example, look at a few specimens of modern federal architecture, such as the notoriously gross FBI Building in Washington, D.C.:

FBI Building

FBI Building, Washington, D.C.3

Or how about the awful Department of Energy building, here:

Department of Energy Building

Department of Energy Building, Washington, D.C.4

Or check out this eyeball-damaging federal courthouse in Austin:

Federal courthouse

Federal courthouse, Austin, TX.5

All of these buildings are very orthogonal, no? A stark display of sharp verticality and horizontality, with no evident decoration, let alone redeeming outward features.

On the best days, with the shiniest glass and before the concrete darkens from airborne soot, these are examples of modernist, dressed-up Bauhaus-style. The more modern versions of which are (suitably) called Brutalist.

Indeed, much modern federal architecture traces back to the founder of Bauhaus, a German man of Prussian extraction named Walter Gropius.

Gropius served in the German army in World War I. Posted to the Western Front, he was seriously wounded while earning two Iron Cross decorations for bravery and merit.

After the war, Gropius suffered from what we today call post-traumatic stress (PTS), which clearly manifested in his architectural work.

In essence, Gropius designed and popularized buildings that resembled wartime bunkers. Usually, they were constructed of concrete, devoid of decoration and open to the outer world only via skinny windows and doors that are the equivalent of firing slits.6

To make a long story short, this kind of World War I, trench-based, combat-hardened architecture is now how your federal government works, figuratively and literally.

Think about it…

Inside their foreboding, ugly, Bauhaus-Brutal concrete bunker-buildings, bureaucrats beaver away, completely isolated from the public. Often as not, the scenario gives every indication of how much they fear you and would like to shoot you.

Then along came Trump to condemn the utter ugliness of this modernist federal style. And not a moment too soon, some architectural purists might say.

Trump castigated the overall system and spoke glowingly of the idea of “traditional” design in older federal buildings.

It took a while, but in Dec. 2020, Trump signed an executive order to promote neo-classical architecture as the official style for federal buildings in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

Trump’s order defined “classical” as including Neoclassical, Georgian, Greek Revival, Gothic and other traditional styles.

Trump established a President’s Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture. The idea was to ensure that proposed federal buildings would be, “beautiful and reflective of the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American system of self-government.”

Trump’s executive order offered historical perspective for mandating the move away from post-modernist concrete bunkers back to classical styles.

“President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson consciously modeled the most important buildings in Washington, D.C. on the classical architecture of ancient Athens and Rome,” the order stated. Like the White House, for example…

“They sought to use classical architecture to visually connect our contemporary Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity, reminding citizens not only of their rights but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions.”

Indeed, much early American architecture followed classical models. Examples are legion. Look at Federal Hall in New York:

Federal Hall

Federal Hall, New York.7

Or consider this elegant old customs house in New Bedford, Mass.:

Customs House

Customs House, New Bedford, Mass.8

Indeed, go to almost any port city in the U.S. and somewhere along the waterfront you’ll find a sturdy old U.S. customs house, constructed in classical style.

In early America, sailing ships would dock and captains would immediately go to the customs house to show the manifest, declare cargos and pay taxes. If the building looked a bit like a Greek temple, it was because of a long architectural lineage tracing back to ancients who worshiped gods of the sea and prayed for good fortune.

These were the kind of federal buildings that early Americans entered to conduct business with their government. They were handsome. Solid, purposeful, respectable, powerful, but at the same time reflective of a sense of equality between government and governed.

But not anymore.

According to Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, “Since the mid-20th century, Modernist mandarins controlling government architecture have been forcing ugly designs upon us.”9

That is, a new school of Bauhaus-Brutalist architects hijacked the design and selection process for government buildings. Then they imposed their pretentious, banal ugliness on the public, all at public expense.

Eventually, a president came along who had an aesthetic opinion, coupled with some knowledge about large building projects, and he tried to restore a semblance of tradition and classical beauty to public spaces.

But that president was Trump, right? And… well, you know the rest.

We now have Biden in office, of course.

Biden’s handlers are more than pleased with America’s half-century experiment with Bauhaus and Brutalism. Obviously, they want more of it, so they wrote an executive order for their president to sign, mandating continual ugliness.

To offer both sides of the argument, the “Modernist mandarins” have their reasons.

According to Robert Ivy, head of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Trump’s December executive order failed to account for today’s office buildings which need to be “efficient” and equipped for both technology and security.

“In the 21st century,” said Ivy, “we’re very different people from the people who popularized Greek Revival architecture in the 19th century, as beautiful as it was. To try to force-fit new systems in old forms is, in of itself difficult to do, inefficient, and is not who we are today.”

Ah, the old “not who we are” argument. It’s a classic statement with which to evade explaining one’s point, worthy of that self-licking ice cream cone mentality which permeates Washington.

Per AIA, America needs more concrete federal boxes with sharp corners, no adornment and slit-windows suitable for the machine gun emplacements.

Because – and let’s not kid around about it – our federal government has become the feudal lord of the national estate, and federal workers must work inside modern castles that send an appropriate message to the subordinate serfs.

It was nice while it lasted, for all of two short months. America almost began to return to the architecture of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. But no, that’s not good enough for the modern Mandarins.

Joe Biden just gave it all back to the Bauhausers and Brutalists.

Because that truly is who they are.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 Executive Order on the Revocation of Certain Presidential Actions, The White House

2 Keep It Classical, Says Trump Order On Federal Architecture, NPR

3 FBI Headquarters, Wikipedia Commons

4 U.S. Dept of Energy Forrestal Building, Wikipedia Commons

5 The Trump Administration Thinks This Austin Courthouse Is Really Ugly, Towers

6 Chatting with Architect and Neuroscientist Ann Sussman about Buildings, Streets, and Cities, James Howard Kunstler

7 Federal Hall, Wikipedia Commons

8 U.S. Custom House, U.S. General Services Administration

9 Keep It Classical, Says Trump Order On Federal Architecture, NPR

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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