Trump, Churchill and architecture
Jeremy Melvin, 18 January 2021
The storming of the Capitol in Washington early in January presents an opportunity to reflect on the importance of parliament buildings, both what they stand for and how they operate, writes Jeremy Melvin.
This combination is especially important since parliamentary procedure, which advanced liberal opinion likes to condemn as arcane and opaque, is an important part of those institutions’ symbolic content. That master of lapidary phraseology, Winston Churchill, made the connection between building and operation explicit when he said, in relation to rebuilding the House of Commons after it was destroyed in 1941, ‘We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us’.
Abraham Lincoln, another master of pithy rhetoric, expressed a similar sentiment when, at the height of the American Civil War, he ordered building work at the Capitol to continue: ‘If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on’.
Lincoln’s sentiment was especially piquant. That building was in the process of acquiring its great dome, designed by Thomas Walter, as part of its necessary expansion to accommodate senators and representatives from new states joining the Union. Many of them rejected slavery, one of the factors that led the old Southern states feeling their right to own slaves was threatened and ultimately to secede, precipitating the Civil War.
It is not necessary to be a Guardian subscriber to see that Trump’s ‘incitement’ speech expresses almost exactly the opposite sentiment to those of Churchill and Lincoln. They stressed the role of their respective parliament buildings in ensuring continuity of parliamentary democracy when it was under existential threat. Trump was at least close to, if not actually, creating such a threat. Where the two elder statesmen turned words into polished diamonds of clarity, Trump’s utterances resemble diarrhea in which words, through mindless repetition, become an amorphous mephitic flow whose stench weaponizes meaning to the point of perversion.
‘Now it is up to Congress to confront this egregious assault on our democracy [the purportedly ‘stolen’ election]’, he driveled on 6 January. ‘After this we’re going to walk down any one you want, but I think right here. We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong’.
Whether he intended it or not, the way was open for horn-hatted and animal pelt-clad spear-carriers to desecrate the building.
This is particularly ironic in light of an executive order Trump issued on 21 December, just over two weeks before the riot. The founding fathers of the US, the order runs, ‘wanted America’s public buildings to inspire the American people and inspire civic virtue . . . They sought to use classical architecture to visually connect our contemporary Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity, reminding citizens not only of their rights but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions’.
The intention is to impose classical design for federal buildings. ‘Care must be taken’, the order states, ‘to ensure that all Federal building designs command respect of the general public for their beauty and visual embodiment of America’s ideals’. It specifically singles out George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as progenitors of the belief that classical architecture alone embodies civic dignity.
However, the order shoots itself in the foot by praising Siena’s 1309 constitution for requiring ‘whoever rules the City [to] have the beauty of the City as his foremost occupation’. Siena seems remarkable lacking in architecture in any way resembling that of Trump’s approved practitioners, ‘Alberti, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Palladio…Robert Adam, John Soane and Christopher Wren… Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Robert Mills, and Thomas U Walter’.
Somewhat bizarrely, classical architecture apparently includes Art Deco alongside Neoclassical, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival and Beaux-Arts, and the work of early 20th century American masters Burnham, McKim and Delano & Aldrich.
Non-classical Federal buildings come in for opprobrium. Thom Mayne’s San Francisco Federal Building may have been praised by ‘elite architects…[but] many San Franciscans consider it one of the ugliest structures in their city’. Perhaps, implies the order, this is because its architect ‘describes his designs as “art-for-art’s-sake” architecture.
How the generally dreadful buildings commissioned by the Trump Organisation would fare through this lens is not considered. Presumably not being Federal public buildings they are exempt from the injunction to ‘uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, and command respect from the general public’, even though the exemplar architects Alberti and Palladio both recommended that private buildings should contribute to civic grandeur.
Therein lies the rub. In the classical world and eras that took some cue from it, such as Renaissance Europe and the first generations of the United States, collective and individual virtue were regarded as a continuum. For the post- modernist Trump there is no obligation on the part of the individual, certainly not himself, to command public respect or contribute to collective virtue. Other citizens are judged by the degree to which they contribute to his grandeur.
‘Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us’, he enjoined. ‘Rudy [Giuliani], you did a great job’, he declaimed, before going on to aver no less than three times that ‘he’s got guts’.
Within the verbiage is a sinister point, a perversion of the ideals his policy on architecture appears to praise. ‘Don’t worry’, he said to the assembled mob apropos of nothing unless it was a latent memory of his executive order, ‘We will not take the name off the Washington monument. We will not. Cancel Culture. They wanted to get rid of the Jefferson Memorial, either take down or just put somebody else in there . . . They’ll knock out Lincoln too, by the way. They’ve been taking his statue down, but then we signed a little law. You hurt our monuments, you hurt our heroes, you go to jail for ten years and everything stopped’.
Compare that to this passage from the executive order: ‘Classical buildings such as the White House, the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Department of the Treasury, and the Lincoln Memorial have become iconic symbols of our system of government. These cherished landmarks, built to endure for centuries, have become an important part of our civic life’. What Trump seems to be expressing here is the old belief, restated in the early 20th century by Alois Riegl and a generation ago by Aldo Rossi, that amid the flux of historical change what persists is the shape and form of buildings.
Both Riegl and Rossi had a subtlety and appreciation of nuance that altogether eludes Trump. Both understood that the relationship between endurance and meaning is complex and contingent. For Rossi in particular, the city was nothing less than the collective memory of humankind in all its fluctuations, vicissitudes and open-endedness, and the ability to reveal that is why continuity matters. Trump’s sense of continuity is itself an illusion, also contingent, though in his case on a whim. The Capitol can be celebrated only when it suits him; when it defies him, the building and its members are anathematised. The continuity lies in being fixed to his purpose, whatever that may be and however it may change.
We come back to Churchill and his paean of praise for the Houses of Parliament. He fully understood that their value lay in their standing for a certain set of values, while allowing those values and much that comes from them to be debated. ‘Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.’
He praises the oblong rather than semi-circular form, despite it sounding ‘odd to foreign ears’ because it favours the ‘party system in preference to the group system. I have seen many earnest and ardent Parliaments destroyed by the group system . . . Logic is a poor guide compared to custom. Logic, which has created in so many countries semi-circular assemblies which have buildings which give to every Member, not only a seat to sit in but often a desk to write at, with a lid to bang, has proved fatal to Parliamentary Government as we know it here in its home and in the land of its birth.’
The size, unable to accommodate all members at any one time, is also an advantage: ‘If the House is big enough to contain all its Members, nine-tenths of its Debates will be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty Chamber. The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchanges. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style… [it] requires a fairly small space…’
Reminding his colleagues that ‘the survival of Parliamentary democracy… is one of our war aims’, he argues for Parliament being ‘a strong, easy, flexible instrument of free Debate . . . The vitality and authority of the House of Commons and its hold upon an electorate, based upon universal suffrage, depends to no small extent upon its episodes and great moments, even upon its scenes and rows, which, as everyone will agree, are better conducted at close quarters . . . our House . . . has a collective personality which enjoys the regard of the public and which imposes itself upon the conduct not only of individual Members but of parties.’ He makes explicit the link between its operational and symbolic purposes.
Furthermore, the House ‘is the foundation of our laws . . . It can change Governments, and has changed them by heat of passion.’ Presciently he adds: ‘Politics may be very fierce and violent in the after-war days’, so ‘We must have a good, well-tried and convenient place in which to do our work.’
There can be few more articulate advocacies for continuity not impeding change but facilitating it. That is something no purely symbolic structure, monument or work of architecture, rooted in a fixed relationship to the past (or the whim of an individual) could achieve. It is almost as if Churchill was anticipating the words of his fellow aristocrat Giuseppe di Lampedusa, ‘Everything must change for everything to remain the same’, though in Churchill’s case it might be more accurately expressed as ‘change can only come from a base of stability’.
That is a challenge for institutional architecture, everywhere.
Jeremy Melvin will be chairing a session at the Parliament Buildings Conference (18-19 February 2021) featuring Paul Monaghan from AHMM, Ivan Harbour from RSH, Benedetta Tagliabue, principal at Miralles Tagliabue EMBT, and David Nelson from Foster and Partners, designers respectively of the temporary chamber for the British House of Commons, the Welsh Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and Germany's Reichstag, and all practices who have made a mark at WAF. The session will be from 1.30 - 3,.30pm London time on Feb 19 2021.
Overall the conference brings together a brilliant line up of architects and parliamentarians, art historians, architecture scholars, historians, geographers, anthropologists and political scientists together sharing their unique insights into specific parliament buildings across Europe, to explore the relationship between architecture and political culture.
Visit the conference website for more information and to register