John Russell Pope's National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. (1935) Flickr/Creative Commons License/Jonathan Cutrer

Writing in Architect, Aaron Betsky provides insights into the outcome of the National Civic Art Society's poll of 2,000 Americans, which found that nearly three-quarters of respondents preferred Classical federal buildings and courthouses. Betsky provides insight into how the poll was structured, which makes the outcome not so surprising, and he expounds on the outsized influence of architectural Classicism on U.S. culture and politics. For any one in the building professions who makes decisions on the style of buildings and their component parts, Betsky's words provide rich food for thought, and might inspire a fresh look at other "modern" architectural styles.

There is nothing magical about the preference for Classicism, which has been giving shape to buildings for millennia. That default collection of columns, pediments, architraves, moldings, and compositional principles add a touch of class to any building, be it a bank or a courthouse, a suburban McMansion or a utility plant. Include those elements or compose your plan according to its system, and you have made any structure convey a message of importance and elegance, much in the way that we might opt for a suit and tie or an evening dress. No other style has been able to achieve the same level of success at communicating that sense of class. Sure, the Gothic and the Neo-Gothic, the Romanesque and Richardsonian Romanesque, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Neo-Miesian Modernism all had their day, but in the end, Classicism has endured in its various guises more successfully than any of them.

Not only that, but Classicism is the easiest way to hide a building’s faults. There is nothing like a colonnade in front to obscure the banality of what is behind. It is a lot cheaper to add moldings than to ensure edges meet cleanly and efficiently. Classicism is also an easy-to-remember way to sequence spaces and give them good rhythm, and you can do it all with straight angles. Actually, that is the only way you can do it, although you are allowed some apses, rotundas, and ovals for, say, the Oval Office.

Classicism may be easy to use as a designer and a builder, but it is also the style of the upper classes. The fact that the majority of respondents in the poll across all demographic groups preferred the Classical buildings says more about our dominant cultural values than it does about the universality of the style. If you can afford Classicism, or you can enter into its domain, you have arrived. The various modes of Modernism have never been able to achieve a similar reality.

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