On December 21, President Donald Trump signed an executive order designating “classical” architecture the preferred style for federal buildings in Washington, D.C. The order represents the transformation of an far-right obsession into federal law, and the long-gestating effort was aided by Fox host Tucker Carlson earlier this year.
At its core, the order is nothing more than the legal codification of a “culture war” flashpoint with little basis in the study or analysis of architectural design.
“Classical” architecture typically refers to building styles derived from Roman or Greek antiquity. As many writers and experts have explored, far-right figures generally despise “modern” architecture. Culture war reactionaries, particularly white nationalists, have long incorporated images and references from classical architecture and art into coded symbolism that erases the diverse influences found in classical antiquity and relegates a complex art form into the visual representation of “western civilization” dog whistles.
It’s not that classical/neoclassical or modern is better, but as Kate Wagner noted earlier this year:
Simply put, people love good buildings, modern and traditional. More to the point, architecture is imbued with all manner of personal meaning to the people who experience it, regardless of how good it is. After all, the houses most of us grow up in are not architectural masterpieces. However, only a specific kind of person looks at architecture and feels the need to talk about the Grecian ideal or the backbone of Western Society. That person is usually either a white supremacist, a stuck-up nitwit trapped in the 1980s, or, in the case of Trump himself, both.
And that brings us to Tucker Carlson. In February of 2020, the Fox host covered the proposed executive order, decrying D.C.’s “ugly government buildings” that were as “common as the mentally ill homeless who live outside of them.”
Carlson painted a picture for his audience of Rome stripped of its churches, relegated to nothing more than a corporate cinder-block purgatory, as if Rome isn’t a hub of architectural styles spanning millennia. To Carlson, an ugly building is a sign that “the ruling class hates this country.”
“We’re not talking about bad taste. … This is aggressively hostile. This is architecture designed to make you feel bad,” Carlson railed, while flashing a photo of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
Carlson's tirade against the horrors of non-marble architecture mirrors the white nationalist slogan “reject modernity, embrace tradition.”
His ramblings about the ruinous nature of modernism paired with a chyron declaring that the executive order would mandate “traditional” architecture sent a clear message to his more extreme viewers, who for years had been waging an online campaign to secure such a victory.
Carlson’s rant treads where others have gone before.
In 2017, InfoWars personality Paul Joseph Watson released a video titled “Why Modern Architecture SUCKS.” The video takes much the same tone as Carlson’s segment, describing modern architectural styles as visual representations of submissiveness to authority, ” blaming post-World War II “radical architects,” attacking abstract artists, and accusing modern architecture of defiling cities. Watson and Carlson both describe a city's choice of architecture and aesthetic as directly relational to societal values.
Carlson’s coverage of the executive order borrows directly from the tone and talking points of the far-right's obsession with classical architecture and its weaponization as a symbol of white supremacy.
As Donna Zuckerberg, editor-in-chief of Eidolon (a classics magazine), explained to Vox, “There’s a strong belief that liberals are trying to create a chaotic multicultural society that’s destined to fail; and the purity and patriarchy of ancient cultures, on their reading, is just a superior model, or at the very least, an argument in defense of their worldview.”
The demonization of modern architectural styles as chaotic and destructive often serves as a stand-in for white nationalist attitudes about the modern world at large.
Following the catastrophic fire that engulfed Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral in 2019, figures on the far right immediately attempted to imbue the news with conspiracy and innuendo. Fox host Martha MacCallum suggested that “other religions … would also like to see these churches gone” while covering the fire. Anti-Muslim extremist group leader Frank Gaffney baselessly suggested that the fire was part of a “Sharia-supremacist assault on Christianity.” Fox guest host Mark Steyn mentioned terrorist attacks by Muslims while discussing the fire and suggested it showed the decline of Christianity in Europe. Neo-nazi Richard Spencer tweeted that the fire would have been worth it if spurred “the white man ... to seize power in his countries, in Europe, in the world.”
The fire and its aftermath resulted in a moment of hyper-focus within far-right spaces on architecture. As Hussein Kesvani wrote for Mel Magazine:
For those who follow the alt-right, Architecture Twitter has become an increasingly prominent voice in the wider “online culture war,” where people proselytize about a return to “European traditionalism” in all its senses, including everything from “fixed gender roles” to forcibly segregating white people from ethnic minorities.
In particular, they see the construction of modern buildings — especially those built between 1940 and 1970 and distinguished by block-like concrete or glass and industrial materials like steel (see: the Tate Modern in London or the Guggenheim in New York City) — as a physical representation of the threat to “Western values.”
Carlson is no stranger to this sort of dog whistle rhetoric; architecture is simply the latest entry on the list of issues he uses to proselytize his white nationalist worldview on cable television. And his segment about the executive order helped stoke the flames of the far-right narrative that it’s necessary to protect “traditional” beauty from an onslaught of malevolent forces.