On February 4th, 2020 Architectural Record reported on a leaked draft executive order from the Trump administration entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” that would require that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for future federal buildings. The American Institute of Architects immediately stated their opposition to the order, arguing that “architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates.” They were followed by several other professional associations, including the Society for Classical Studies (attaching themselves to an existing statement from the Society for Architectural Historians) and The Archaeological Institute of America, which in addition to opposing the order noted that the very idea of a uniform “Classical” style of architecture misrepresents the variety of styles used in the Classical period. This condemnation of the totalitarian nature of the order was matched in the press with many articles describing a similar compulsory preference for Classical architecture under the Nazis in Germany or Fascists in Italy. The resonance of this proposed executive order with past white supremacist regimes is indeed disturbing, but it risks locating hateful admiration for Classical architecture in the past when in fact the nexus between it and racist politics is alive and well, as Pharos‘ survey of mentions of it on some of the major sites we document shows.
(Except where noted all links are to archived versions of the sites being documented, not to the live versions of those sites)
White supremacist and xenophobic sites immediately expressed support for the executive order. Writing for American Renaissance, Gregory Hood called the order “one small step toward reuniting white Americans with our civilizational tradition” and argued that “if people feel connected to their heritage and history, they are more willing to fight for it.” Other forms of architecture, Hood continued, “reinforce an idea of racial deracination” and “alienate white people from their past” in order to “make them feel helpless, rootless, and weak.”
Behind these statements of support for the executive order is an ongoing and long-standing admiration for classicizing architecture that is informed by many aspects of white supremacist identity, including the continuity they see between themselves and Hitler’s Nazis and their obsession with the supposed decline of civilization in an increasingly multicultural world. In the American context the neoclassical architecture of America’s capital signals, for these groups, an essential congruence between their hateful politics and the soul of the United States. In this, the neo-Nazis are not wrong: white supremacy pervades American history. What they’re wrong about is that this history should be perpetuated in the most prominent and symbolically central buildings of our nation. Which is exactly what they understand the purpose of neoclassical architecture to be.
Certainly neo-Nazis have no doubt that Hitler’s admiration for neoclassical architecture serves as an endorsement of it.
- One white supremacist site describes the Augustan “Altar of Peace” (Ara Pacis) in Rome as “a manifestation of the Aryan spirit of the Classical world that inspired the architects of National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy some 2,000 years later. It is an example of the artistic glories that our race can achieve once it is freed of the shackles of the decadent ethos of the modern era.”
- A review on the racist site Counter Currents of Frederic Spotts’ Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics calls Hitler “the greatest art patron of the twentieth century” for his “dream of forging a state whose artistic and cultural achievements would rival those of ancient Greece and Rome.” The review conveniently ignores Spotts’ central point that Hitler’s aesthetic drive served as a cover for the emptiness and incoherence of his political message.
- “I think that concern for aesthetics have always been a right-wing issue,” writes the editor of the most notorious neo-Nazi site on the internet. “Right-wingers celebrate beauty, while the left-wing wallows in ugliness and filth.” The article then juxtaposes an image of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which is described as “Jewish Architecture”, with an image of a colonaded garden portal at the “Reich Chancellery” that was Hitler’s private residence until his death. These differences in architectural taste are proxies for their overall theory of political difference: “Beyond aesthetics, right-wingers tend to care about strength, which comes from health, while the left views strength as oppressive and celebrates weakness.”
White supremacists see history since Hitler’s National Socialism, and to some extent Mussolini’s Fascist regime, as a narrative of decline. The references above indicate how Classical architecture is interpreted as a marker of the superiority of those regimes. The abandonment or neglect of those styles is, in turn, a marker of cultural decline caused by the dilution of white identity:
- Counter Currents has reprinted many speeches by the British racist Jonathan Bowden, including one given in 2009 in which the speaker blames “the Genocide Act that was passed by the United Nations in 1948” for bringing “an enormous Somali population” to Liverpool, England. He invites his audience to “look at the neoclassical and classical architecture as you go around the center of Liverpool,” a city which “was a great imperial city based upon the wealth of slavery, a city of power.” Now, he complains, “there’s nothing left” but a city that is “on [its] last legs now, blitzed and destroyed, full of immigrants in the centers.”
- The same site found inspiration in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 Academy-award winning Le Grande Bellezza, a film that suggests, according to the reviewer, that “when we men of the West rediscover this [film’s] vital spirit, combined again with a sense of honor, then our entire people will be free and healthy again.” Part of the appeal of the film, the review argues, is its setting in Rome, where “decadent partying…is juxtaposed with the heart-wrenching beauty of Rome, the layers of architecture reflecting the will and purpose of better men in past times…every man of the West must visit Rome at least once if he can…and consider what kind of great empire could build this, the center of the universe, and just how little remains.” The title of the executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” is designed to resonate with this nostalgia for a supposedly superior past that contributor’s to this site find in Classical architecture.
- The examples above come from a European context, but in America, too, these sites treat neoclassical architecture as an homage to our history of enslavement and inequality. Writing on The Daily Stormer, the pseudonymous editor of a white nationalist blog laments the vandalization and removal of confederate monuments with reference not only to neoclassical architecture but to antiquity itself. “White Southerners are like the Italians living among the ruins of the Roman Empire. These monuments are reminders that we used to be a great people and can be so again. In the 19th century, the Southern people were a race of masters, explorers, settlers, statesmen, military leaders and orators. We see neoclassical Greco-Roman architecture and Greek and Roman place names all over the South because that’s who our classically educated ancestors admired and wanted to be like.”
For white supremacists, the United States was founded as a nation for white people; the violence of this founding was justified by the superiority of white culture; and any complication of the United State’s identity as a “white” nation must be resisted. The neoclassical architecture of the U.S. Capital serves as a symbol of each of these beliefs.
- A white supremacist site reviewed the television series The Man in the High Castle, which imagines what America would look like if the Nazis had won World War II, expresses the hope that viewers of the show will “reconsider their [negative] perceptions of National Socialism.” The reviewer believes this might happen because America, in his view, is a fundamentally fascist nation, as its architectural history proves: “Lost in the Left’s fixation on the Declaration of Independence’s pablum about ‘all men are created equal’ and the Jewish poem retconning the Statue of Liberty, is that America’s foundations are deeply fascistic. The White House, Capitol, and most of Washington, DC exhibit the neoclassical architecture of the fascist Greco-Romans. America’s republic, which originally restricted rights and privileges to landowning males, was a descendant of the Roman Republic, where only landowning men could serve in the military and by extension were the only ones who had certain rights and privileges. Indeed, at the very heart of America’s government, the House of Representatives, stand two fasces side-by-side with the American flag.”
- After white supremacist Richard Spencer‘s gym terminated his membership, one of his racist media platforms wrote an article attacking the woman who recognized and denounced him at the gym: “The same strong white men who built the civilization this parasite now inhabits, who erected the mighty neoclassical state architecture of the city in which she dwells, who have given their lives to secure this land and territory on which she treads, would have their families blown to bits by drones if this vile woman had her way.” Neoclassical architecture is thus explicitly made a symbol of a social order in which white men deserve special power and influence over others.
- One prominent white supremacist said in an interview that when he first arrived in Washington D.C. in 1963 he was “deeply impressed by the neoclassical architecture and art of the place” and began to want “to find [his] place in the civilization that could produce the great art I’d seen in Washington.” For him this meant opposing the civil rights movement, by which, in his view, the “misrulers of our country were…dedicated to the eradication of their own culture” by “severing us from the ancient genetic and cultural heritage that made that art possible” by “calling for the rule of the worst and the lowest and the meanest, and the exaltation of all that was alien, ugly, and spiritually dead.”
- Responding to a prominent white nationalist‘s criticism that the nationalist cause is hurt by “the 1488 crowd” of neo-Nazis who “use Nazi imagery” because “it is inspirational to remember that there was a group of men not too long ago that took on the Jews and almost won,” Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer writes that neo-Nazis should celebrate Hitler and Nazism as openly and as a vigorously as they celebrate the Classical aesthetic of America’s early leaders: “It is difficult to see the difference, all things being equal, between admiring Hitler, the Founding Fathers, Napoleon, Charles Martel or any other historical European figure. In actual fact, the whole of Europe has used classical aesthetics and philosophy for the entire history of civilization. The Founding Fathers drew such inspiration from ancient Greece and Rome that they modeled almost all of the nation’s iconic architecture on this aesthetic. The Greek classics, as well as all of the other European classics, were taught in schools. The Founding Fathers wrote about viewing America as a New Rome. [For nationalists], denial of Adolf Hitler…would be no different than denying the greatness of any other part of European history.”
- When a white supremacist site reprinted without editorial comment a positive review from The Guardian of the Smithsonian’s new (in 2016) Museum of African American History that called the museum’s design “a welcome rebuke to the world of white marble monuments to dead white men,” commenters on the site responded with a flood of racist slurs. Part of the “welcome rebuke” celebrated by the review was that the design “shed [the] Corinthian columns” that had been in the original 1915 proposal for such a museum. (These comments are not visible on the archived version of this article; those comments can only be seen on the racist site itself).
Just as white supremacy has spread into misogynist communities online, so has admiration for classical architecture:
- The misogynist site Return of Kings has an article arguing that “the preachers of social justice have realized architecture’s significance” and “want to change how we interact” by “isolating people and destroying their relationships.” The article praises ancient architecture for reinforcing traditional gender roles: “[ancient] designers emulated the inherent human roles they saw in the natural world,” with the Doric order’s “robust and austere proportions represent[ing] the man” and “the slim and decorative Ionic order represent[ing] the female.” The article then complains that “modernists erased gender from langauge” and “removed it from our buildings,” no longer making “destinction[s]…that correlate to the sexes: sturdy vs. slim, bare vs. adorned, dominant vs. subservient.”
- Another Return of Kings article blames the “general decline and disorder in society” on “ugly” architecture that abandons “objective standards of beauty.” The article’s touchstone for beauty in “a city or a building” is “the ancient world.” The article is primarily misogynist. It argues that older cities with classical architecture provided “a solid framework built around a patriarchal family” in which “men toiled at physical work, which kept them strong and mentally focused, while women played to their strengths of being nurturing mothers and caregivers.” And it recommends that “fat shaming and shunning of tattoos, multiple body piercings and promiscuity” is the best way to make “beauty…honored and idealized.” But it also strikes a note familiar from white supremacist discourse about the supposed decline in white people’s pride in and knowledge of their own heritage: “ugly cities,” it argues, “convey a sense of ‘We don’t really know who we are, what we stand for, or where we are headed’ which is why so many men feel disconnected, confused, and don’t stand up to defend their culture, and explains the rise of globalism.”
“Neoclassical architecture isn’t always a right-wing dogwhistle,” noted one commentator. An executive order like this, however, coming from an administration with a long record of using coded references to white supremacy, probably is. The hate groups certainly hear it.
(Except where noted all links are to archived versions of the sites being documented, not to the live versions of those sites, so as to avoid directing web traffic to hate sites)