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Trumpania, U.S.A.: Making Federal Buildings Fascist Again

IN OLIVER HIRSCHBIEGEL’S endlessly memed 2004 German film Downfall, about Adolf Hitler’s last delusional, self-obsessed days toward the end of the Second World War, there is an unsettling scene that stands out in a movie made up of them. Hitler, as played with reptilian efficacy by Bruno Ganz, crouches down and stares through a white plaster miniature of a planned triumphal arch. As the camera pans out, we see that Hitler is intensely studying an entire city of these models, a reimagined new Berlin that was to be called “Germania.” About the size of several pool tables linked together, the Third Reich’s architect Albert Speer has assembled what looks like a fascist model railroad town, a reconceived capital of monumental columns and widened boulevards, of neoclassical statues and massive marble buildings.

The dictator circles around the table, slowly, pompously, and reverentially considering the design, while delivering an encomium for the assembled officials and their secretaries (including Speer) about past architectural wonders, such as the Acropolis, which Germania will supposedly supplant. Finally, he pauses in front of the ribbed dome of the Volkshalle, which was to have been sixteen times larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica, so huge that it would have had its own weather patterns underneath the roof. “You know Speer, there’s an advantage to those bombings,” Hitler says, amid the distant sound of Soviet incendiaries exploding over Berlin’s streets. “It’s easier to clean up debris than to demolish everything ourselves.” He’d of course be dead within a few months.

In Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, Frederic Spotts writes that Germania was to rival “imperial Rome;” “at every turn vast plazas, gigantic state buildings, great thoroughfares, columns, towers, statues, reliefs, arches, baths, theatres, forums, temples, memorials, bridges, palaces, museums, stadiums, tombs, fountains, galleries, obelisks” were to be built, with all of it to “speak for its creator and memorialize him for one thousand years.” The scene from Downfall is disturbing in the manner that all implied counterfactuals about the outcome of the war are disturbing, for it asks us to envision a monstrous Germania, which thankfully never came to pass. But it’s also disturbing in another way: Hitler’s intense focus and concentrated attention, the way he slowly considers Speers’ models as if a spectator at an architectural museum, remind us that his original desire was to be an artist and that he harbored pretensions to such a vocation until the moment he put a pistol to his temple. It reminds us in turn that there is perhaps something a bit totalitarian in the singular obsessions of the artist, in their belief that they’re worthy to remake the world—what Ron Rosenbaum calls in Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil “demonic connoisseurship.”   

The German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin famously argued in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that, in a manner that’s broadly the opposite of communist authoritarianism, fascism tends towards an aestheticization of politics. If Marxists supposedly read art through a didactic political lens, then fascists reformulate society and politics into their own twisted work of art. This is what Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed when he said that politics is the “highest and most comprehensive art there is.” Hitler, who was obsessed with design and art, arguably saw the nation itself as a canvas on which he could force his visions. This is what critic Terry Eagleton describes in The Ideology of the Aesthetic whereby the “wholesale aestheticization of society had found its grotesque apotheosis for a brief moment in fascism, with its panoply of myths, symbols and orgiastic spectacles.”

Crucially the aestheticization of society also involved a type of weaponized art critique. Nazis attacked the modernist avant-garde as decadent and depraved, Jewish and Bolshevik, mounting their most famous assault at the 1937 Exhibition of Degenerate Art in Munich, which included paintings and sculptures by seminal figures like Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, George Grosz, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, Piet Mondrian, and Wassily Kandinsky (all the pieces had been confiscated and displayed against their creators’ wishes). Hitler claimed that such work “[insulted] German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form.” His aesthetics were markedly revanchist; Spotts writes that the “classical style was the hallmark,” that slavish imitation of Greek and Roman antecedents architecturally and artistically “exemplified Hitler’s new Germany.”

This aesthetic conservatism, even when it borders on reactionary kitsch, is always worth wearily paying attention to when it rears its head in public discourse. Such is the case with the draft of an executive order from the Trump administration predictably titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” obtained by Cathleen McGuigan of Architectural Record the day before the president’s “acquittal” during his impeachment trial and largely overshadowed by that event. The proposal was presumed by some to have been authored by, among others, Justin Shubow. A member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, director of something called the National Civic Art Society, and one of the self-described “aesthetic guardians of Washington, D.C.,” Shubow’s tastes are decidedly conservative. To that end, the draft proposes to form a President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture, whereby “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style.”

The draft named names when it came to federal buildings whose style the authors found—perhaps—decadent. These include structures like San Francisco’s federal building and the U.S. courthouses in Austin and Miami. With unusual language for an executive order, the draftees decried “brutalism and deconstructivism.” Even the title of the draft is strange for an executive order, and brings to mind Susan Sontag’s observation about Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl in her classic New York Review of Books essay “Fascinating Fascism,” where the critic explains that that ideology “also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today . . . the ideal of life as art, the cult of beauty.” Critics of the draft noted how it had purposefully misinterpreted and added to the language from the 1962 “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” written by the then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The future New York Senator wrote that federal architecture “must provide visual testimony to the dignity . . . of the American government.” But also that, true to the principles of an open, creative, and flexible society, “an official style must be avoided.” Moynihan concluded that rather than mandated official stipulations, “design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.” Needless to say, the order has a rather different intent, even if it cribbed much of Moynihan’s language, specifically demanding a culturally and politically loaded aesthetic.

Read entire article at The Baffler