On Monuments of Barbarism:
Why American Federal Architecture Should Return to
Its Neoclassical Roots
Chris Coffey | July 2021
The White House's North Portico in October, 2012
eorge Washington signed the Residence Act of 1790 into law early in the second year of his administration. The act provided for a new federal city to be established along the Potomac River. Washington, with assistance from Secretary of State and polymath Thomas Jefferson, selected architects and examined designs for the Capitol Building, the White House, and other buildings in the new federal seat of power. For the White House and the Capitol Building, the Founders landed on designs submitted by Irishman James Hoban and Englishman William Thornton, respectively.
It is no accident that both designs, and many others of the time, were of the then-popular neoclassical style, characterized by the use of columns, symmetry, and simplicity of form. The Capitol was inspired by classic Roman architecture, including the Pantheon, as “an emblem of the nation’s republican experiment.” Hoban’s plans for the White House drew inspiration from classical buildings in Ireland and from the Roman architect Vitruvius.
But the choice of Greek and Roman styles chosen was more than a reflection of the popular mode of architecture at the time. These styles were specifically chosen to convey reverence to the Western and Enlightenment traditions that the Founding fathers intended to carry on. This initial homage to classical architecture prevailed for generations, as reflected in buildings throughout Washington, D.C. and countless cities ranging from Chicago to Philadelphia.
In recent years, however, federal buildings and university campuses have moved away from this deference. A return to neoclassical architecture would be a significant step towards restoring a much-needed and culturally unifying sense of national grandeur.
Jeffersonian Neoclassicism in America
One cannot extol American neoclassical architecture without discussing Thomas Jefferson. A polymath who dabbled in farming, surveying, mechanics, and law, Jefferson was also a keen architect. Throughout his life he designed many buildings in the neoclassical style. Jeffersonian homes such as Monticello, Poplar Forest, and Barboursville bore various classical hallmarks: the entrances he drew featured the porticos and pediments that had come to prominence in Ancient Greece. Despite mixing unique elements, Jefferson’s works often conformed to the Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Tuscan architectural orders that originated in Greece and Rome.
Perhaps no building better represents Jefferson’s emphasis on the importance and underlying meaning of architecture than those he designed at the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed the university’s most iconic symbol, the Rotunda, in 1817. It was directly inspired by the Pantheon, and was meant to represent the “authority of nature and power of reason.” The Rotunda was to sit at the center of what Jefferson dubbed the “academical village,” where students were to be educated in the liberal arts and the Founding ideals. The colonnades and pavilions were an ode to the wealth of classical literature, philosophy, and thought that had led to the Founding.
Jefferson considered architecture to be “among the most important arts” and thought it “desirable to introduce taste into an art which shows so much.” To Jefferson, “taste” in architecture was synonymous with the neoclassical tradition. As such, he asked the question in a 1785 letter to James Madison, “how is a taste in this beautiful art to be formed in our countrymen, unless we avail ourselves of every occasion when public buildings are erected, of presenting to them models for their study and imitation?” In other words, to cultivate an atmosphere that promotes Western education and exemplifies civic virtue, Jefferson thought it preferable for the government to create buildings in the neoclassical style.
It is no surprise, then, that Jefferson had a hand in developing Washington D.C., the seat of federal power, in accordance with these ideals. While a limited government bent on reducing expenditures was all well and good, Jefferson cautioned that we ought not act “against the comfort of laying out the public money for something honorable, the satisfaction of seeing an object and proof of national good taste, and the regret and mortification of erecting a monument of our barbarism, which will be loaded with execrations as long as it shall endure.”
Thus, our halls of power are distinguished by countless tall columns, repeating symmetrical shapes, and domed roofs. A minimalist, militantly utilitarian design focused entirely on functionality alone would not suffice. Instead, buildings from the Capitol to the White House were designed to evoke the ideals and culture that birthed our republic. It is right that the peoples’ house should be a resplendent marble temple rather than a callous concrete monstrosity.
America Embraces Brutalism
Much of Great Britain lay in ruins after World War II. During the post-war rebuilding era, brutalist architecture emerged as a preferred style. Understandably, efficiency replaced imagination as the defining characteristic of British architecture. However, because America’s domestic infrastructure was virtually untouched by World War II, the arrival of the brutalist aesthetic on our shores is more difficult to understand. Beginning in the 1950s, this architectural style began to dominate American universities.
The style is every bit as “brutal” as its namesake béton brut (raw concrete) makes it sound. Tedious slabs of concrete and strict monochromatism replaced the symbols, engravings, and patterns of Federal style, neoclassical works. Supposedly meant to convey the simplicity of basic materials such as concrete, wood, and steel, brutalism became a fixture of American universities and institutional buildings for several decades.
I think of the gulf between Jefferson’s lofty view of architecture and the “sensible” take of the Brutalists every time I walk around campus at my own University of Michigan. One of our most iconic buildings, Angell Hall, stands proudly on State Street. Boasting a broad, welcoming staircase, massive Doric columns and a marble-finished lobby, it is exactly the sort of building Jefferson thought befitting of an American educational institution that would rival any school in the world. The facade of Angell Hall is completed by an inscription from the Ordinance of 1787 that reads “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Meanwhile, the University’s much-newer North Campus features much more “utilitarian” architecture. Even a campus-based library honoring an American president – Gerald R. Ford, part of Michigan’s Class of 1935 – greets the world with an unadorned, plain brick façade. Libraries at many other prominent universities, including Brown and the University of Chicago., are also of Brutalist design.
This change in architectural style reflects a shift in values, not simply a shift in taste. It is no coincidence that our Capitol looks as it does, while the Soviet Union favored Brutalism. Many leading Brutalists such as Alison and Peter Smith openly avowed socialist utopian ideology. The style became emblematic of European communism between the 1960s-1980s.
The state of Brutalist architecture today is fitting, however. While too many institutional buildings remain Brutalist blemishes (and should be replaced wherever possible), the style has largely gone out of fashion. What Prince Charles called “piles of concrete” have weathered poorly in certain climates, and their plain surfaces have been covered in graffiti. The neoclassical architecture of American ideals remains, with the help of occasional renovations.
Brutalist architecture ought to be, like the totalitarianism it evokes, another decrepit relic consigned to the dustbin of history. Because the style is especially prevalent in universities, it is especially concerning to see that as many as one-third of college students have a positive perception of socialism, suggesting that these buildings’ nihilistic influence may not be lost on the next generation. As academia and other institutions have strayed from traditional American ideologies, they have increasingly embraced the architecture that evokes the inverse of those ideas.
Reconciling Neoclassical Projects with a Balanced Budget
One argument against a neoclassical revival is that the cost of ornate buildings, monuments, and memorials outweighs whatever abstract benefit they might provide. Conservatives in particular often voice the concern that any government spending, with the possible exception of defense, must be cut or at the very least grow minimally.
Yet Calvin Coolidge, as parsimonious a politician as ever existed, thought otherwise. Working alongside Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, Coolidge aggressively pursued lower taxes and government spending. In his six years in office, President Coolidge made clear his view that “government extravagance is not only contrary to the whole teaching of our Constitution, but violates the fundamental conceptions and the very genius of American institutions.” Nonetheless, Coolidge did not view monuments to our Founders, or their ideals, as “government extravagance.”
As President, Coolidge oversaw the construction of Mount Rushmore, the most colossal man-made monument in the country. Though not of a neoclassical design, Mount Rushmore carries the same sense of deference to the Founding and its classical ideals. At the monument’s dedication, Coolidge reassured the crowd that the sculpture “will be decidedly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning and altogether worthy of our Country.” Fittingly, he also added that “money spent for such a purpose is certain of adequate returns in the nature of increased public welfare.” Increasing spending to beautify our public works in the neoclassical style favored by generations of great Americans would be money well spent indeed.
The structures the government builds are not simply places to conduct bureaucratic business. The appearance of federal buildings, along with monuments and memorials, says something more profound about our nation.
As Winston Churchill relatively recently explained – in debate over the rebuilding of a bombed-out Palace of Westminster – “We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” Everything from the Capitol Building and White House to the University of Virginia reflect a particular vision of national sensibility and governmental design. America was not founded on the ideals of uniform pragmatism and sheer functionality reflected in Brutalist architecture. Rather, as Abraham Lincoln – whose own monument is a masterpiece of classicism – explained, the Founders “brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Those Founders recognized that the physical architecture of the nation’s buildings, as much as the architecture of its laws and institutions, should foster the gradual realization and perpetuation of universal truths that preexist government. Perhaps if neoclassicism sees a revival of this architectural vision, fewer of us would take those truths for granted.