There are few great buildings in the world whose significance extends beyond the quality of architecture, history, or function. The U.S. Capitol reflects not only that trifecta of values but is the single most potent symbol of America’s republic.
So we all watched in horror on January 6 as this essential emblem of democracy was attacked by a violent mob, incited by President Trump and his cohort, who tried to overturn the lawful election of Joe Biden, as the Electoral College votes were being formally certified by members of the House and Senate, as prescribed in the U.S. Constitution.
Battering doors, smashing windows, vandalizing walls, trashing furniture and artwork, the overwhelmingly male, white horde included those brandishing Confederate flags, crowbars, knives, zip-tie handcuffs, and guns, some threatening to kill Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence. They beat policemen, resulting in the death of one. It is a miracle the toll of casualties was not greater.
Some days earlier, as his term waned, Trump had signed an Executive Order (EO) dictating Classical or traditional architecture as the preferred “style” for federal buildings. That will wind up as a small footnote in the history of his term in office, but at the moment, the destructiveness of those Trump supporters—whom he professed to love in the midst of their mayhem—makes a mockery of it.
As Trump was facing his first impeachment a year ago, RECORD broke the story of the White House’s intention to insist on the Classical style for new government architecture. There was a swift, broad wave of protest to the proposed mandate; some objections came from unexpected corners such as the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
As it was finally issued in late December, the EO justified its goal by stating that the Founding Fathers wanted the nation’s public buildings to “encourage civic virtue”; by employing Classical models from ancient Athens and Rome, they sought to remind “citizens not only of their rights” in the new democracy “but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions.” The Capitol building is Exhibit A in the EO’s broad edict: it notes that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson personally oversaw the initial design by Dr. William Thornton, the first of its many architects. Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793.
Of course, ancient Greece and Rome were hardly exemplars of liberty, nor were the empires and kingdoms that embraced Classical architecture after the Middle Ages. And in our own nascent democracy, the only citizens who enjoyed full rights were white, male property owners, many of them slaveholders, including Washington and Jefferson. The Capitol itself was constructed by enslaved people and indentured servants—a fact omitted in the historical summary on the current U.S. Capitol website.
The EO argued that people reflexively revere Classical architecture and repeated frequently in its text that Federal buildings must “command respect from the general public.” And then came January 6.
When the Capitol was stormed, any civic virtue and respect engendered by the architecture vanished; the columns, pediments, and dome proved to be no obstacle for the most extreme elements in our republic.
Citizens should respect government buildings, but their design—whether in historic or contemporary structures—must also respect the wide citizenry to whom they belong. The Capitol—as both Pence and Pelosi termed it after the attack —is “the People’s House.” We the people and our representatives have the right to determine how our government expresses our values through architecture—and today that often includes the virtue of transparency, both symbolically and physically, and the urgent need for sustainability. And while we respect history throughout our built environment, no type of architecture should be prescribed or excluded, now or in the future.
This EO, along with many mandates from the Trump White House, is likely to be canceled by the new administration. If the Democracy in Design Act, first introduced in the House last year, has a new opportunity to become law, it would prevent such an executive order from determining federal architecture in the future. “Our public buildings should reflect the rich diversity of our nation and its people,” said its sponsor, Dina Titus (D-Nev), chair of the subcommittee that oversees the General Services Administration and federal buildings. “They should signify our progress over the years and be as accessible as possible.”
For now, the People’s House is heavily fortified, and the damage to the building is being repaired. But the damage to our democracy will take much longer to restore.