In a poll, traditional buildings soundly beat modern-looking ones, regardless of age, geography or political preference. Should that matter?
Corinthian columns and Carrara marble do more for Americans than concrete and steel, according to a new poll on America’s architectural tastes. And it’s not even close.
The survey, conducted by The Harris Poll, asked more than 2,000 Americans to consider seven pairs of images, most of them side-by-side photographs of various federal buildings — one classical in design, the other more modern-looking. “Which of these two buildings would you prefer for a U.S. courthouse or federal office building?” asked the survey, which was organized by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit that promotes classical approaches to architecture and urbanism.
The responses did not vary by demographic group: When asked to choose from the two images, Americans of every age, sex, race and class category pulled the lever for traditional designs by a nearly 3 to 1 margin. Overall, classical won out over modern by 72% to 28%.
For example, the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building — designed by Beaux-Arts architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich and home to the Environmental Protection Agency — easily handled the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, designed by modernist architect Marcel Breuer as headquarters for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Poll respondents overwhelmingly preferred the 1935 building and its Classical Revival arcade to the 1968 curve of concrete with its Brutalist aesthetic — 81% to 19%.
Similarly, Breuer’s Hubert M. Humphrey Building (built in 1976 for the Department of Health and Human Services) didn’t stand a chance against John Russell Pope’s National Archives building from 1935. Both architects are preeminent figures of their respective eras: Pope designed the National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial; Breuer dreamed up the former Whitney Museum of American Art and the Wassily chair. This one’s a slobberknocker: Pope 83%, Breuer 17%.
The National Civic Art Society poll follows a failed effort earlier this year by classicists to move an executive order to the Resolute Desk to “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” A draft of this White House mandate, which leaked in February but stalled before it received the president’s signature, would have required all new federal buildings and courthouses to be built in a classical or traditional style.
But despite the ideological dimension to the question, architecture may be one issue in the run-up to the 2020 election that cuts across partisan lines: The survey found that 73% of self-identified Republicans, 70% of Democrats and 73% of independents support classical designs over their modernist counterparts.
“This is very strong reason for thinking that a bipartisan majority of Americans would support a reorientation of federal architecture in a classical and traditional direction,” says Justin Shubow, president for the National Civic Art Society. “The results are so strong that it’s hard not to conclude that Americans wouldn’t be happier with more traditional buildings.”
Shubow was appointed by President Donald Trump to the Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal agency that oversees design decisions in the nation’s capital, and he has long worked to push American architecture in a more traditional direction. He led a nearly decade-long effort to obstruct a memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower designed by Frank Gehry, which opened in September. Shubow is participating in a debate on Oct. 19 hosted by the American Enterprise Institute to argue in favor of traditional architecture, but he wouldn’t comment on the executive order or whether there is any chance that the president will take up the issue before the November election.
Classical architecture isn’t Trump’s style, exactly — The New York Times once described one of his towers as a “1950’s International Style glass skyscraper in a 1980’s gold lame party dress” — but such a mandate wouldn’t be out of character for the White House. Trump recently signed an executive order to erect an extremely traditional-sounding national garden of statues that specifies only “lifelike or realistic representations of the persons they depict, not abstract or modernist representations.” And regardless of his tastes as a developer, as president he has rarely passed up an opportunity to re-ignite a culture war.
The new survey is the first to take America’s temperature on architecture since a 2007 poll by the American Institute of Architects, which asked some 2,200 people to rank their favorite 150 buildings in the U.S. from a list assembled by architects. Neoclassical designs predominated on that list, too, although late 18th century and early 19th century buildings benefit from the weight of history in this kind of count. Accomplishments in design aside, the White House (#2 on that list) is simply a much better-known structure than Michael Graves’s Humana Building in downtown Louisville (#98) and many more. (Number one among American structures: the decidedly modern Empire State Building.)
For its part, the AIA opposes the proposal to make neoclassical style mandatory for new federal buildings, and any other ideologically driven design mandate. “This is not a question about a stylistic preference for federal buildings or popular majorities,” said Jane Frederick, the organization’s president, in a statement to CityLab. “It’s about ensuring a process remains in place that allows for community input and the flexibility to ensure federal buildings reflect the culture and needs of the local area.”
Despite his group’s pro-classical bent, Shubow says that the National Civic Art Society took pains to make this a fair fight, matching up related structures “to make them apples to apples.” That meant pairing buildings of similar scope designed by architects of the same stature. Pictures in the poll were also edited to account for the appearance of skies, cars and foliage in order to give the competitors equal footing. However, in every matchup, the results were lopsided. The only modern project that came close was the brick-and-stone-built Frank M. Scarlett Federal Building in Brunswick, Georgia, which still lost out to the Spanish Revival-style U.S. Courthouse in Waco, Texas, 40% to 60%.
But for weighing how well buildings work in real life, context matters. In the poll, for example, James A. Wetmore’s Classical Revival design for the Gene Snyder U.S. Courthouse and Custom House, built in 1932 in Louisville, Kentucky, outmatched the Hammond Federal Courthouse, designed in 2002 by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners Architects for Hammond, Indiana, 81% to 19%. While the low-slung limestone façade of the Pei Cobb Freed courthouse echoes the sweep of the midwestern prairie in Indiana, that environmental tableau doesn’t come into play in a heads-or-tails toss-up.
Does that mean that Indiana residents would like to see a typical D.C. neoclassical building replace a distinctive Indiana modernist project? Possibly: According to the poll, respondents favor traditional design in the West (69%), South (73%), Northeast (73%) and Midwest (74%). The results don’t change much by income, education level or any other characteristic. Then again, small towns in Indiana pride themselves on their modern architecture. And it’s hard to imagine stoic neoclassical buildings from the Northeast Corridor slotting seamlessly into cities in the West or Southwest, where regional styles have fused with modernist approaches to produce the distinctive look and feel of cities such as Austin or Los Angeles.
“People are not going to want a Mission Revival courthouse in Maine,” Shubow concedes. “There is something to be said for regionalism, and we certainly support that. Even in Los Angeles, there is a classical building history.”
If it were up to most Americans, maybe every federal building would look like the Old Executive Office Building, ornamental and imperial. But the nation contains multitudes: Americans love The Masked Singer, Thomas Kinkade and the New England Patriots, but the nation also has many fans of Twin Peaks, Jean-Michel Basquiat and really any other professional sports team. Brutalism might be an acquired taste, but Americans find room in their hearts for plenty of modernisms — California Googie, Chicago’s skylineand anything Frank Lloyd Wright.
If there’s one flavor that spans the American palate, though, it’s a distaste for government busybodies telling people what’s good and what isn’t. The White House proposal to ban modernist federal buildings would block many of the nation’s most creative designers from competing for federal projects, or at least severely restrict their options. That might not be what most Americans have in mind when they say they’re fans of architecture’s greatest hits.