U.S. presidents typically reserve their first 100 days in office for urgent policy priorities. It makes sense to take advantage of the fleeting opportunity when their popularity is at its highest and their agenda encounters the least resistance. It might therefore seem surprising that President Joe Biden, only four weeks post-inauguration, should have turned his attention to public architecture. On February 24, 2021, Biden revoked an executive order issued by former President Donald Trump during his final days in office, “Promoting Beautiful Civic Architecture”, which had specified classical architecture as the preferred style for federal buildings and discouraged the use of modernist architectural styles. Biden took this action when the highly anticipated COVID-19 economic relief package had not yet passed through Congress. Why, at such a critical time, would Biden dedicate valuable political capital to building design?
Washington D.C. is a planned capital city whose spatial design is meant to symbolize the U.S. government’s power, as well as the nationhood narrative that the government models for American citizens. Public architecture in Washington D.C. is dominated by two styles. Federal buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries are built in the classical style, modelled on the civic architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. Federal buildings from the second half of the 20th century are built in the brutalist style, which descends from continental European modernism and Bauhaus design.
The government buildings lining D.C.’s National Mall are more than the physical headquarters of public administration. They symbolize the ideological tension between two visions of what America should be. The architectural design of federal buildings represents an unresolved political debate between libertarian and internationalist value systems, between a society modeled around farmer-statesmen and a society modeled around technocrat-administrators. The polished marble curves of classical architecture harken back to the direct democracies of ancient Greece and Rome; buildings in this style represent the republican ideals of an American founding premised on citizen participation. The raw concrete angles of brutalist architecture take aesthetic cues from European modernism; brutalist architecture embodies the internationalist aspirations of a postwar era premised on American moral hegemony formally enforced via international organisations. Both of these normative paradigms were initially presented as radical utopian ideals, though their structural inequities have become apparent with the benefit of hindsight.
Classical Architecture: America’s auto-emancipation from Europe
U.S. Supreme Court building (Flickr, Wally Gobetz)
With their marble colonnades, triangular pediments, and wide staircases, the classical buildings of Washington D.C. are reminiscent of public buildings in Athens or Rome. The headquarters of the three constitutional branches of government ‒ the White House, the Congress Building, and the Supreme Court ‒ are built in the classical style. In evoking Greco-Roman architecture, these buildings emphasize the United States’ commitment to the participatory citizenship model that inspired the founders. Classical style was also used for the monuments that honor America’s foundational civic heroes, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.
The political ideology of America’s founders was directly influenced by 17th-century European Enlightenment ideals of individualism and natural rights. Enlightenment thinkers, in turn, drew heavily on Greco-Roman political philosophies of democratic republicanism. Classical and Enlightenment thinkers prized critical logical analysis, questioning the legitimacy of power structures rather than accepting political authorities’ claims of a divine right to absolute power. Enlightenment ideas inspired the American founders to write a Constitution that prioritized decentralization and local autonomy, in reaction to the experience of English colonial rule.
Like America at the time of its founding, the polities of classical Greece and Rome were participatory democracies that guaranteed all landowning male citizens a direct voice in self-government. The farmer-statesman was the archetype of the “ideal citizen”. The leaders of republican Rome were farmers by vocation, according to Roman writers; they had no thirst for power, but were always ready to defend their community from foreign invasion. The American founders’ narrative of citizenship was linked to this ideal of the reluctant patriotic warrior. To be an American was to have the right to one’s own piece of land and to minimal external interference in one’s personal affairs ‒ absolute natural rights that any citizen should be prepared to defend with the force of arms. The nascent American nation was most directly threatened by the prospect of a military invasion from Europe. State power was to be used parsimoniously, mainly to prevent external interference with private property rights.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture building on the National Mall (Flickr, Ken Lund)
Early American art elevated George Washington to the embodiment of the ideal citizen, depicting him as a democratic leader who refused an offer of monarchy and retired to his farm after having rescued the nation from crisis. Monumental statuary portrays Washington as Cincinnatus, a legendary early Roman military dictator who used his emergency executive powers only to defend the nascent republic from foreign invasion, then immediately abdicated his title and returned to his farm. Republican leaders like Cincinnatus traded the sword for the plow, a ritualistic act that is depicted in Western art as a narrative device symbolizing civic virtue in democracies.
The classical architecture of Washington D.C. represents America as the grown child of Greco-Roman civilization, reviving their millennia-old ideal of direct participation in civic life. The vast grassy lawns that surround D.C.’s classical buildings evoke the ancient Greek agora and Roman forum, public spaces where citizen landowners exercised their rights to free assembly and voting by secret ballot. These design choices project the impression that early federal buildings are approachable to the pedestrian, accessible as a right of citizenship. Classical architecture embodies the constitutional system of checks and balances which constrains central government power and guarantees individual freedom.
Brutalist Architecture: America’s self-reinvention as a transatlantic power
Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters (Wikimedia Commons, Carol M. Highsmith)
The midcentury emergence of brutalism reflects the fact that World War II was a turning point for federal building design and for America’s self-definition. As the U.S. government expanded its peacetime military and economic influence in postwar Europe, American political elites redefined the nation as belonging to a larger transatlantic community, united with Western Europe by common values and heritage. This construction of a shared identity served to legitimize America’s security protectorate over its European trading partners, whose coal and steel markets had already been regionally integrated via the European Community, later the European Union. Postwar social policy dramatically increased U.S. homeownership rates, but the political influence associated with ownership became diluted. The new American nation had matured into a political-moral empire, one in which technocratic administrators had definitively eclipsed landowners as the primary decision-makers and meritocracy replaced the natural rights of citizenship. State power was to be used expansively, to reshape the world in America’s image and to open international markets for American corporations that had emerged stronger from the wartime command economy.
The transatlantic political-economic identity extended into visual culture. Postwar American art and architecture borrowed heavily from interwar European modernist and abstractionist movements, like the Bauhaus, that prized function over beauty. New York City positioned itself as the global capital of art and design, carrying forward European stylistic innovations that had been interrupted by the war. The U.S. government promoted movements like abstract expressionism as emblems of American prosperity and creative freedom.
America reinvented itself as the grown child of Germany and France, rather than of Greece and Rome. This marked the birth of “the West” as a unitary actor and the consolidation of the Western-centric international order that has dominated the past 75 years of world affairs. Instead of a postcolonial society freed from imperial oppression, postwar America fashioned itself as a global power in the model of the European empires it had recently surpassed in military might. In the Cold War security paradigm of mutually-assured destruction, the greatest threat to the U.S. was no longer armed invasion. The greatest threat came from ideological narratives ‒ like those promoted by the USSR ‒ that might reduce American geopolitical influence by fragmenting its newly formed “special relationship” with Europe. Shifting geopolitical realities gave rise to a new understanding of citizenship. To be an American was to be a global citizen, part of an international consumer society, shielded from financial risk by government regulation of the market economy.
It was at this transformational moment, in the mid-1950s, that the U.S. government encouraged the use of modernist architecture for federal buildings. A variant of International Style Modernism, brutalism became the design style for the headquarters of the executive-branch agencies created after World War II to oversee the consolidation of the new nation: one with an economy powered by global trade in consumer goods, protected by a social safety net and an omnipresent national security apparatus. The headquarters of the Department of Energy, the FBI, the CIA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Health and Human Services are all built in the brutalist style.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Wikimedia Commons, Sarah Stierch)
In Europe, the use of concrete as a material for public buildings was a practical necessity due to acute postwar shortages of traditional building materials like bricks and stone. In America, the switch from marble to concrete represented a conscious ideological choice. Concrete brutalist architecture was perfectly suited to embody the new American nationhood narrative because brutalism itself is a transnational phenomenon, a conceptual synthesis of modernist styles developed across continental Europe; its name is etymologically derived either from Swedish or from French, depending on which architectural critic you ask.
With its monumental proportions and utilitarian forms, brutalist architecture projects a narrative of universalism that legitimises America’s emergence as a military-industrial superpower. Gone are the polished surfaces and graceful curves of classical architecture; the new public buildings are hulking blocks of concrete, rough edges and raw façades. Instead of grassy lawns, the new buildings rise, immense, from seas of unadorned concrete pavement. Their design aims to inspire awe, not to welcome the pedestrian. These are buildings for administrators, not for the people. Brutalist architecture symbolizes the expansion of central executive power at the expense of local autonomy and direct democracy.
Narrative complexity and reassertion
The nationhood narratives constructed by political elites are only meant to grant legitimacy to themselves, the minority in power. Excluded from the farmer-statesman archetype were enslaved people, indigenous nations, non-landowners, and women. Excluded from the global citizen archetype are the millions of working-class and middle-class Americans for whom transcontinental free movement is a distant concept rather than an attainable reality. Although they do not represent most people’s lived experience, nationhood narratives can achieve broader societal resonance by being incorporated into public memory. Visual arts and design are one way of achieving this. That is why civic architecture is so politically important; it shapes our understanding of who we are and what our society should be.
George Washington as “The American Cincinnatus,” painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris
The ideological struggle between libertarianism and internationalism in American political life is as contentious as it is far from being resolved. Although President Trump was certainly no farmer-statesman, his “America First” policy was a genuine reaction to the societal consequences of unrestrained globalism, which has raised the prestige of a few elites, while pushing the rest of the population into economic stagnation and precarity. The outcome of the 2016 election confirmed that globalism had lost its luster over the post-Cold War decades as middle-class living standards were progressively degraded by industrial outsourcing and neoliberal financial policies that achieved wealth concentration through mass dispossession. Post-9/11 “forever wars” further damaged the moral argument for American global engagement. It was harder to justify spending taxpayer dollars on foreign nation-building as domestic structural inequities became ever harder to ignore.
Trump’s executive order on architecture aimed to repudiate brutalism ‒ both its aesthetic forms and its ideological connotations. His affirmation of classical architecture communicated an intent to return to the political roots of the American founding: in other words, to a time when property-owning citizens had the absolute right to assert influence over national policymaking. This was no return to the segregationist status quo ante; it was a new nationhood narrative for citizen-owners excluded from the gains of neoliberal globalism because they acquired their property too late, or in the wrong location. Trump instrumentalized marble buildings as a symbol of the populist yearning to reclaim political power from transnational economic interest groups.
It is precisely this symbolic association, between brutalist architecture and America’s ascension to a global superpower role, that explains why President Biden considered it a priority to revoke Trump’s executive order on “Promoting Beautiful Civic Architecture.” Biden, an internationalist who came of age during the Cold War and who previously headed the Senate’s foreign affairs committee, is committed to the postwar narrative of American moral universalism. It is in this light that Biden’s campaign promises to restore “normalcy” and “decency” must be interpreted. In Biden’s worldview, the transatlantic political-economic construct is and should remain the central determinant of U.S. government policy. Biden’s executive action on architecture was a way to reassure the Western world that “America’s back!” ‒ because brutalism expresses American power as the postwar internationalists envisage it.