Delaware Avenue starts in downtown Buffalo and ends somewhere around North Tonawanda. It passes, for about a mile, through the Village of Kenmore, where buildings offer a jumble of architectural styles. The municipal building is among the last structures designed by legendary local architect E.B. Green and is as modernist as anything built in 1936. There is a funeral home in the Tudor style, originally designed to recreate Shakespeare’s cottage; rows of mixed-use buildings, retail shops downstairs with apartments and offices upstairs, built immediately after World War I and as useable today as they were 100 years ago; several acres of a car dealership, a castle-like retirement home with turrets in the roof and a Pakistani restaurant which started out as a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet and retains that unique, drive-up look.
There is also a small bank, built in the 1920s to look like a sturdy, confident place to stow one’s money, in that Greek temple style. Pillars hold up the front of the building. It must have been a sign of confidence in the village to install this bank at a time when the extant municipal building across the street was still made of wood.
Yeah, that Greek and Roman revival stuff was, and is, a way to reinforce the idea of solidity and strength. A proposed executive order from the White House, revealed last week, calls on all federal government buildings in the United States to henceforth leave all graceful and modernist designs in the closet and rely on “classical architecture styles” as “the preferred and default style” of design.
Really. Any new courthouse in America will no longer feature indigenous material, contemporary design or its relationship to whatever’s standing next to it. The model will be that building on the back of the 10-dollar bill – pillars and white marble all over the place, and that Julius Caesar-on-his-way-to-get-stabbed vibe.
I am no architecture expert, but neither is anyone in the White House, least of all the ringleader of the “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” order. Yes, that’s what it’s called.
“The federal government has largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in,” it says in part, before decreeing that more of the Roman temple look is what this country needs. This is from the people who in 1981 demolished a New York City landmark and Art Deco masterpiece called the Bonwit Teller building at Fifth Avenue and 66th Street and replaced it with Trump Tower.
There is something of the Mussolini attitude about this executive order. A country, any country, relies on prior civilizations for style cues – the Spanish influence in Latin American buildings is an example – but gets to a certain maturity and develops a style of its own. The early government buildings of the United States – and colleges, incidentally -- certainly relied on that Greek and Roman devotion to geometry and pillars to create buildings to be taken seriously. In the past 30 years, though, modern architecture has taken off with an eye toward self-confidence, vigor and grace. I guess this government has no need to encourage self-confidence.
The architecture about to be swept away has diversity, and you know how the current administration feels about that. Better to have a government building with a look just a little imposing, impressive but daunting.
This is symbolic, of course, but unlike much of art, architecture is with us, around us, for a long time. Paintings and sculpture can be largely ignored if a viewer chooses not to like it. Certain music and movies can be avoided. Even your idea of the best-looking car on the road will be within a scrapyard in a decade. With a public building, it’s always there; you drive past it, you work in it, you wish there was something with which to replace it. And it will likely outlive you.
It’s said that the best view of the city of Warsaw, Poland, is from atop a government building done in a style later call “brutalist,” or in this case, “Stalinist.” It was a gift from the Soviet Union, and it’s really not a badly designed building. It’s just that when you’re standing on it, you can’t see it.
The next time a government building goes up, you’ll likely be able to imagine Abraham Lincoln walking up its stairs, Benjamin Franklin sneaking a drink behind its pillars and certain amount of us-versus-them in its execution. If you seek a government to fear, this proposed executive order is perfect.
Contact Ed Adamczyk at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.