ELB Book Corner: Evans and Gaddie: “Make Temples Great Again?”

I am pleased to welcome to ELB Book Corner Jocelyn Evans and Keith Gaddie, authors of the new book, The U.S. Supreme Court’s Democratic Spaces. Here is the third of four blog posts:

ELB Book Corner

In the U.S. there is a default vision of judicial architecture. That vision is a stone temple. The Supreme Court Building is an iconic example.

This style is deeply ingrained in our national consciousness. The courthouses of  popular culture echo classical style. We are conditioned to see the courts as temples. Television and film use courthouse steps and classical columns for establishing shots. Courtrooms are dark wood with ambient light, and feature classical design elements. Cass Gilbert, in designing the Supreme Court, similarly took direct inspiration from the same precedent used by Jefferson for the Virginia capitol.

On December 21, 2020, Donald Trump issued an executive order to promote classical style as the official style for Washington, D.C. This extended nationally to new federal courthouses. As defined in the order, Classical style encapsulates Neoclassical, Georgian, Greek Revival, and Gothic. The order set off a debate in political circles and among architects about the ‘beauty’ and ‘greatness’ of these styles when compared to emergent Modern and Postmodern styles often used in federal courthouses.

Preferencing these historic styles extends to the City Beautiful movement, which through the McMillan Plan of 1901 dominated DC architecture through the 1940s.  It represented an historic step back from a half-century of promoting emergent styles first advocated by Pat Moynihan in 1962. Moynihan’s guidance led to more Modern, Brutalist, and  Postmodern influences in federal building design.

Throughout his career, Trump developed his fair share of gilt-chromed modernist vertical ice cube trays to the urban landscape. Why preference traditional styles? The answer is easy. Doing so echoed decades of conservative design from the federal Office of the Supervising Architect.  After the Civil War, as courthouses and federal buildings sprung up across the nation, conservative styles predominated. Federal buildings were most-often in a temple motif or a Gothic style like Romanesque.  This preferencing ended in 1939, and greater use of  PWA Moderne  and Modernist styles followed. 

The evolution of architectural styles in American federal courthouse design carries social meaning concerning the source of the law and the nature of justice. Classical styles hold the law as sacred grounded in eternal truths revealed through the Enlightenment and affirmed in republican democratic government. Revivalist styles (Gothic, Beaux Arts) hold the law as pure, true, sacred, and eternal. Administration of justice is ritualized and enduring. Interpretation of law should be conservative and conformist. Modern styles (Deco, PWA, Brutalist) convey law and administration of justice as direct, bureaucratic, procedural, universal, and powerful. Deconstructivism infuses design with imagination, dissonance, asymmetry, and unpredictability. Such meaning when read into the law collides with the values of all other styles. The priorities of Sustainable architecture projects legal professionals as stewards. Justice is efficient and balanced. The law is natural, localized, and contextual.

So, why wrap the “Make America Great” trope around federal architecture? Because style and images have power and meaning, none more so than the federal presence through courthouses. Design matters. Trump as developer and aspirant strongman instinctively knew this. Crafting a city and a nation in his ideological image required managing the aesthetics of civic architecture. This meant reaching back to the classical National Style.

Making buildings great was short-lived. On February 23, 2021, President Biden reversed Trump’s order. In doing so, he faced off with the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, where five of seven members were  Trump appointees. Undoing Trump’s machinations also means addressing this bias in the advisory body, infusing it with diverse professionals who value a range of architectural styles. But the durability and cultural presence of the Classical styles nonetheless persist.

The Neoclassical U.S. Supreme Court Building

 Gothic Revival Courthouse, Columbus, Ohio.

 Modern Federal Courthouse, Seattle, Washington

 Postmodern Federal Courthouse, Austin, Texas.
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