By Sigurd Neubauer
“Architecture is music frozen in time,” the legendary German intellectual and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) once remarked.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, modernism as an architectural style has largely replaced the classical tradition, which goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, as the dominant aesthetic force redefining America’s cities and towns.
Seeking to reverse this fundamental shift in American architecture, Justin Shubow of the National Civic Arts Society, argues in an interview in favor of embracing the classical tradition as it exemplifies “beautiful buildings that can be enjoyed by all people.”
“That tradition embodies the best of Western civilization, and it respects harmony and place,” Shubow says by pointing out that Washington, D.C. was established as a city anchored in the classical tradition.
It was George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who initially encouraged the classical tradition in America as they believed that government buildings in the newly established American Republic should embrace the nation’s values.
“They believed that traditional architecture originating in Democratic Athens and in the Roman Republic were not only time honored and timeless in style but whose values the United States would embrace,” Shubow says. The classical tradition was also extended to the McMillian Plan of 1901-02 which created the National Mall as we know it, he adds.
Classical architecture in the U.S. is not limited to Washington, however, but includes several famous landmark buildings in New York City such as the Carlyle Hotel, the Chrysler Building and, of course, the Empire State Building, all of which are in the Art Deco tradition. New York’s Public Library and Grand Central Terminal were built in the Beaux Arts style, however.
“Art Deco is the last style of classical architecture,” explains Shubow as it includes “a great deal of ornaments and decorations.” The Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, for instance, have tripartite designs, where the buildings have a bottom, middle and a top. “Their designs are just like a column with a base, shaft and capital. It is this type of tripartite design that serves as the whole mark for classical architecture,” he adds.
The Art Deco style is also featured prominently in Miami Beach, Florida, where it has become part of the local culture and identity. “So many people like architecture that is tied to one place, and in Miami Beach, “it suits the climate,” Shubow says as he argues that the classical traditions can coexist in a modern metropolis.
Shubow is not only a proponent of the classical tradition but vehemently opposes modernism, which he characterizes as a “copy-paste” style of architecture where the same floor is often copied and pasted from the bottom up until the last floor. “There is no distinction between the bottom and the top of a building,” he says. Modernism has no identity, it is bland and unlike Art Deco and other classicism, does not have the poetry of design.”
In fact, “modernism is depressing,” he alleges.
The breakaway from classical architecture began in Europe during the immediate aftermath of World War I, Shubow explains as numerous architects had become disillusioned by what they considered the self-destruction of Europe through unprecedented bloodshed. An estimated
9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians died in the war.
With the rebuilding of Europe, modernism – both in architecture and music – represented a new era which sought a clean break away from the past and chart a new course.
An early proponent of modernism in architecture was Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus School in Germany whose manifesto was “to build the Cathedral of Socialism.”
Gropius, along with other architects championing modernism, argued that architecture must follow the spirit of the time, also known as the Zeitgeist. While they believed in the concept of progress in history, Shubow considers modernism as an “ideology” that “doesn’t tolerate contrary views or descent.”
Modernism can be summed up by three “dictates,” Shubow explains. The first is a “minimalist approach” where “less is more” as outlined in the works of German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The second is by American Louis Sullivan whose approach is anchored in the belief of functionalism, namely a building’s design should reflect nothing but its economic and technological purpose. “The interpretation of the modernist is that modernism is not a style but that designs follows automatically from function. The architect is only an intermediary,” Shubow says.
The third dictate is by Austrian architect Adolf Loos who famously described “ornament as a crime” as he called for stripping design of all decorations and forcing a type of austerity, Shubow says.
“Some modernists even believe that buildings should create anxiety and uncertainty in people,” Shubow says, adding that “modernism is in many ways an attack on ‘bourgeois taste.’”
He goes on to argue unlike modernist composers such as Gustav Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók and others, which can be enjoyed in concert halls at the discretion of the listener, architecture is public. “It can either uplift us or depress us,” Shubow asserts.
Shubow, nonetheless acknowledges that beauty can be found in certain modernist structures and points to the Sydney Opera as an example. “It is a striking building, but it is distinctive from much of modernism as its designs are based on natural forms.”
“Its seashell exterior design is perhaps why so many people admire it,” he adds.
Shubow, however, quickly points out that modernist architecture on a large scale quickly fall out of style, citing the Brazilian capital of Brasilia as an example which he insists “has become an architectural and urban failure.”
Whether legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright can be classified as a modernist, Shubow described him as “an idiosyncratic figure” whose pioneering and beloved work cannot
easily fit into classicism or modernism. “His buildings are also considered functional failures, with in some cases, included deteriorating structures and leaky roofs, but he nonetheless cared about beauty as a criterion,” Shubow says.
Shubow, who is not an architect, but a graduate of Yale Law School, the University of Michigan, and Columbia University, developed an interest in architecture while studying philosophy in graduate school.
He has since effectively utilized his platform as president of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS), a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. that promotes the classical and humanistic tradition in public art and architecture, to passionately advocate for his views on architecture and designs of monuments, memorials, and buildings in the nation’s capital, including through various U.S. Congressional testimonies. Among other things, he testified on the future of the National Mall, saying its classical design should be protected and furthered.
The NCAS, which was founded in 2002, has over the past decade taken on several high-profile battles. In 2013, Shubow and NCAS, launched and led a campaign to oppose “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s proposed deconstructivist design of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial near the National Mall.
In a Congressional testimony, and in a 150-page report, Shubow opposed Gehry’s design of the Eisenhower Memorial altogether. Even though the memorial was ultimately completed, Shubow says that his organization was successful in forcing certain design changes to the memorial, including removing a statue of Eisenhower as a barefoot boy (originally the sole statue in the memorial), and eliminating two giant steel “tapestries,” each as big as a basketball court, that blocked the view to the Capitol Building.
“Art Deco is the last style of classical architecture,” says Justin Shubow as it includes “a great deal of ornaments and decorations”
He remains critical of the memorial as completed since its main structure, a 400-foot-long steel scrim, depicts Normandy Beach today in peace time but is actually an illegible scribble. “Moreover, the memorial is composed of a bunch of disjointed pieces littered around as opposed to a harmonious whole,” Shubow says. He points out that “Eisenhower was a modest man who wouldn’t even wear his own medals on uniform, but here is a gargantuan memorial that is so big it could fit two Lincoln Memorials.”
More recently, Shubow’s NCAS successfully petitioned the Trump Administration to adopt its vision for adopting classical architecture of federal government buildings, which included President Trump signing an executive order titled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” that reoriented federal architecture in a classical tradition, and required that new federal buildings in Washington, D.C. be classical in design.
The order revolutionized federal design, which had been modernist since after World War II, and resulted in Brutalism and what Shubow describes as “ugly and banal federal buildings and U.S. courthouses around the country.”
“In the past 60 years, the government has built virtually no classical or beautiful buildings, even though classicism had been the official government style for 150 years, and even though it is widely preferred by the public,” he laments.
After the executive order was first proposed, NCAS commissioned a poll conducted by the non-partisan polling firm The Harris Poll gauging Americans’ preferences for federal architecture. The poll of over 2,000 U.S. adults found that nearly three-quarters of Americans – including majorities across political, racial/ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic lines – prefer traditional architecture for federal office buildings and U.S. courthouses, Shubow says.
The executive order, however, was rescinded shortly after President Biden took office. While the American Institute of Architects had opposed Trump’s executive order, the Biden White House did not reveal why it was revoked.
“Some modernists even believe that buildings should create anxiety and uncertainty in people,” Shubow says, adding that “modernism is in many ways an attack on ‘bourgeois taste’”
Trump also appointed Shubow in 2018 to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal agency comprising seven presidential appointees who are the aesthetic guardians of Washington, D.C. In January 2021, he was elected its eleventh chairman.
Shubow, who doesn’t consider his work partisan but rather seeks to influence any administration on issues pertaining to advancing classical architecture in the U.S., says he intends to keep working to influence the design and direction of public buildings, memorials, and monuments.
Shubow says that NCAS will continue with its outreach to decision makers and influencers, and in particular, is playing a role in developing plans for building a new classical Penn Station in New York inspired by the magnificent original Beaux Arts design, which was completed in 1910 but demolished in 1963. “We seek to restore Penn Station to its former grandeur,” Shubow concludes.