Recovering Anti-Woke Architecture

Editor’s Note – Classical architecture is the physical expression of the American Founding. Modern architecture is the physical expression of today’s woke regime. Lifeless, anti-social, bureaucratic, and elitist, it rejects an abiding standard of beauty. And more generally, it rejects America.

Classical architecture, the Founders’ preference for the nation’s capital, is the physical manifestation of the American form of government, its Western roots, and its political aspirations. It embodies good order, benevolent hierarchy, and reason. Classical architecture reflects permanent principles, reinforcing the natural law grounding of the American Founding.

As classical architecture is the physical expression of the American regime, modern architecture is the physical expression of the woke regime. Representitive of woke architecture is New York’s Madison Square Garden (MSG), which is plopped atop the rat maze, or hell hole, known as Penn Station. This structure replaced the original Penn Station, a glorious tribute to our past, which was torn down in an act of cultural revenge, or at least malign indifference. 

Unlike the original Penn Station, MSG and the train station below make no reference to the past and no acknowledgment of its neighbors—or if there is acknowledgement, it is in the form of a middle finger. MSG sits alone, self-absorbed, and uninterested in the life that goes on around it.  The building has no observable entrance, but the one thing that is clear is that if you were somehow to find your way inside, there would be no escape. MSG is as welcoming as a jail. It is no wonder that it attracts crime, the homeless, and litter.

MSG makes not the slightest pretense to style or grandeur; indeed, these things strike it as preposterous. There is no melody and nothing to lift the human spirit. It has no ambition and not the least confidence in itself. In fact, like wokeism generally, it is a paean to self-loathing.

For modernists, there is nothing inherently good or even noteworthy about classical architecture; it is simply the architecture of a particular time, no better or worse. And yet, in the same woke breath, the modernists believe it is actually much worse because it recalls the period of our Founding, which, they say, was conceived in white supremacy and slavery and committed to their preservation. So you see, wokeism is both relative and absolute, whatever is needed to serve the power grabbing purposes of the Woke Left.  

In some important respects, architecture is different from other art forms. For one, you cannot get away from it. This is unlike modern painting, and most modern sculpture that will leave you alone if you do not frequent the museums where such art is displayed—museums, by the way, that usually are as dismal and dehumanizing as the art they house. In New York City, think the Whitney; in Washington DC, think the Hirshhorn.   

More than other arts, architecture bears directly on our sense of well-being. If it’s good it can cheer us up, give us a sense of belonging, even motivate us. If it is bad, it grates on us, makes us feel small and worthless and isolated. The Calhoun School, which is in my neighborhood, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is a fine example of the latter. It is said to look like a TV. To me, it looks like big brother’s surveilling eye.

Whatever it looks like, it gives me the creeps. If I feel the need to test my inner strength, I walk by it. But mostly, I take a detour. Most people probably would not suffer the inconvenience (small as it is), but I am quite sure they, like me, are unsettled by this building, which doubtless was the architect’s intent.

There came a time when the Calhoun School needed to expand. One of the architects who was bidding for the commission asked the school’s headmaster what sort of statement the school would like to make with the addition. The headmaster responded, “we made our statement and now we wish to retract it.” Would there were many more such retractors!

Modern architecture is monotonous and sexless, non-binary if you prefer. It goes to great length to eschew decoration. Like a meal taken intravenously, it provides the necessary nutrients (functional interiors), but none of the conviviality and sensual pleasure of a good meal.

There is something else distinctive about architecture. We, lay people, are not allowed to have an opinion about it. What the general public thinks is irrelevant. Movies and television are different. In these cases, we are entitled to criticize, as we are with any commercial product. Producers try to make things we like; otherwise, we won’t buy them, and they go broke.  There are professional movie critics, supposed experts, but it’s not they so much as our friends, fellow citizens, who tell us what is worth watching.  

Today, in some areas of American life people are standing up for themselves and rejecting rule by experts (for example, K-12 education), but in the case of architecture, we all sit perfectly still and take it on the chin. There are a few dissenters, but they, like all critics of the woke regime, are shamed and censored. For the most part, we no longer have architecture critics in our newspapers, which is another way of telling us that we need not concern ourselves with something that manifestly does concern us. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,” we are told, “just leave it to the Anthony Fauci’s of the architecture world.”

Would anyone take an out-of-town visitor to look at the exterior of MSG? Classical architecture is a source of civic pride, but how could anyone take pride in something that takes so little pride in itself? It is akin to taking pride in a homeless encampment.

Where did we get such horrid architecture? The same place we get most of what is horrid in modern life: academia. Poll after poll reveals that the American public overwhelmingly prefers classical architecture over modern. But this falls on the deaf ears of the woke elite. Or perhaps they do hear but choose to punish us. The more the public objects to modern architecture, the more elites celebrate and encourage it.

The woke elite make us say modern architecture is beautiful (or at least force us to hold our tongue) while our own eyes tell us it is verifiably ugly. Like totalitarian regimes everywhere, the woke regime is training us to accept its version of reality, which includes the denial that there is an abiding standard of beauty. This is criminal.

In some good news, President Trump—commonsensical, independent, and generally unimpressed by experts—issued an Executive Order near the end of his term that encouraged that federal buildings be constructed in a classical style.

Naturally, modernists rose up in righteous indignation calling classical architecture racist and white supremacist. Surprise, surprise. The Architecture Lobby published an absurd open letter that sounds like a parody of wokeism, but sadly, is deadly serious:

“Neoclassicism in the US is directly related to the construction of whiteness. It was whiteness that was sought after in the many plantation houses that chose the style, justifying it as an emulation of ancient Greek ‘culture’ to separate themselves from the Indigenous peoples whose land was stolen and the enslaved African people forced to build and work in them…The [Trump] administration’s chosen style glorifies an imperialist, colonialist, and white supremacist past.”

We will no doubt be told, perhaps we have already been told, that classical architecture causes emotional distress. But what of those, the overwhelming majority, who feel uplifted in the presence of good classical architecture, ennobled, in awe of human achievement that approaches the transcendent?  Of course, in the woke regime, such people don’t count for much. We must make them count. Our country depends on it.

Predictably, Biden immediately revoked Trump’s executive order. If the Republicans regain power, very likely they will renew Trump’s executive order. But in the meantime, we the people can take things into our own hands.

A prime opportunity is a proposal from a new organization, Grand Penn Community Alliance, that proposes to move Madison Square Garden to a different site, replacing it with a large park, which slides gracefully into the neighboring 8th avenue classical U.S post office. On the east side of the park would be a soaring train hall closely modelled on the original’s main concourse which comprised glass Roman vaults upheld by a bare steel framework. A classical colonnade on 7th avenue would book end the like-minded colonnade of the post office.

Rather than relying on my description of Grand Penn, take a look at the slide show below. If you like it, and it is difficult not to, tell your neighbors.

Yes, moving Madison Square Garden is a challenge but it is far from impossible. Like all noble endeavors the project faces strong headwinds—political as well as cultural. So, it’s time for we the people to rise up, and reclaim the heritage that is rightly ours. 

Constructing Grand Penn would demonstrate both that America is part of Western Civilization, and that that Civilization is worth perpetuating. Constructing Grand Penn also would constitute a revival of the idea that public buildings are for the public, and that such buildings ought to inspire and instill noble citizenship—civility in the true sense.