For as long as nations have risen and fallen, autocrats, authoritarians, and dictators have held a fascination with using architecture as a political tool to immortalize their regimes, often whilst dismissing contemporary architectural styles in the process. In 2017, just one year after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, Glossi took a look at the aesthetics and semiotics of Totalitarian and Fascist architecture from the Pantheon in Rome to Trump’s gaudy towers.
Now, it seems the 45th POTUS is taking a page from history, in mandating the architectural style of government buildings in the United States. Last week, trade magazine Architectural Record obtained a copy of a draft executive order from the White House, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” which would require newly built or upgraded federal structures to conform to “the classical architectural style.” Citing the infrastructure of “republican Rome” as its inspiration, the order sparked ire online as historians and politicians recognized the fascist and authoritarian undertones of such a mandate. The plan appalled the American Institute of Architects, which called the draft order’s “uniform style mandate” antithetical to the ideals of democracy, while D.C.’s urban planning director was blunter: “It is authoritarian,” he wrote on Twitter.
Totalitarian architecture has an uncanny ability to manifest the perceived strength and power of a regime into the collective psychology of their people whether to subjugate their own or to intimidate their enemies. In many ways, Totalitarian architecture represents the potential of the regime that builds it. In mandating government offices to adhere to a specific architectural aesthetic already rooted in the authoritarian rule of ancient Rome, Trump positions his government in the realm of totalitarian dictators that have come before him.
When totalitarianism flourished across Europe, so did “fascist architecture,” or the construction of new federal monuments and buildings in the same architectural style. More than just a way to telegraph leaders’ political vision for the country, it was a way to inspire and reinforce national unity, inextricably weaving together lived experience and political philosophy. At the heart of all that building was a belief that architecture could be a political statement about whom society serves and what it values.
Adolf Hitler notoriously held a fascination with classical architecture, planning to build at one point, the largest building in human history. The Volkshalle would have been over 700 feet high and 800 feet in diameter, sixteen times larger than the dome of St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Inside, there would have been space for 180,000 people. The structure would have been the center of “Germania,” a hypothetical city that architect Albert Speers and Hitler proposed would transform Berlin into the capital of German-occupied Europe.
At the peak of fascism in Italy, Mussolini sought to create a new site for a ‘modern Rome’ to prosper from after Rome was awarded the honour of hosting the World’s Fair in 1941. This site would become a relic of Italian Fascist Architecture long after the fall of Mussolini. The district is named after this event, Universal Exhibition or Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR) and was built to showcase the power and strength of the regime. Much like Nazi architecture, and the style that Trump is attempting to mandate, the structures in the EUR were designed with little ostentation in mind, rather focusing on a neoclassical approach.
A similar logic underpins Trump’s draft order. “Federal building designs should … inspire the public for their aesthetics, make Americans feel proud of our public buildings,” it reads. “Classical and traditional architectural styles have proven their ability to inspire such respect for our system of self-government.”
In the context of the resurgence of far-right nationalism under Trump’s administration, echoes of fascist ideology are all but scant in American culture. In this case, the president takes one step closer in designating himself as its commander in chief.
Cody is the managing editor and senior contributor at Glossi Mag.
He is a photography aficionado, masters candidate, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.