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Editorial: Why are the America Firsters upset about architecture?

Editorial: Why are the America Firsters upset about architecture?

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The Hoover building in Washington, D.C.

There was a brief flurry of outrage last week when some of the more far-right members of Congress announced they were founding an “America First” caucus that would support “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”

That was the phrase that elevated the America First caucus from a yawn to full-on Twitter outrage.

As Slate magazine wrote: “Given that non-historians usually understand Anglo-Saxon to just mean white, and that [Matt] Gaetz, [Louis] Gohmert, [Paul] Gosar, and [Marjorie Taylor] Greene aren’t known for their interest in the anthropology of the British Isles, members of the press and public surmised that America First was going to be an openly white nationalist faction.”

It certainly didn’t help that the language they used mirrored language once used in Ku Klux Klan recruiting fliers; these organizers are either ignorant of American history or know it all too well.

Denver Riggleman is certainly mindful of recent history, which is why he’s now the former Republican congressman from the 5th District, having been denied renomination last year by more extreme elements within his own party despite even an endorsement by then-President Donald Trump.

Riggleman told CNN that after reading the America First Caucus platform: “It was sort of gobsmacking. You read the first seven pages ... and it sounds like what happened to me in my district with the same sort of vile language, like racism in a jar.”

Riggleman might still be a little sore over what happened to him, but even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, recently seen confabbing with Trump in exile at Mar-a-Lago, tweeted his disapproval about what he called “nativist dog whistles.”

Much of the platform for the caucus — which now might not even happen after the political blowback — deals with immigration, something the America Firsters don’t think much of.

That’s not really the odd part of the platform, though. Immigration has been controversial for a long time; the America Firsters are really channeling the infamous Know-Nothing movement of the 1850s which worried that too many Irish Catholics were diluting the nation’s Anglo-Saxon stock.

McCarthy tweeted that “the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln & the party of more opportunity for all Americans,” so if anyone needs a history lesson, they should understand that the Republicans in this America First movement are actually at odds with the party’s own history.

Republicans once ran against the Know-Nothings; Republicans once championed immigration when Democrats did not. Technically speaking, these far-right Republicans today are the Republicans In Name Only — the dreaded RINOs. But we digress.

The oddest part of the platform came when the America Firsts stake out a strong and clear position on the vital issue of … architecture.

Yes, architecture.

The America Firsts boldly declare that they “will work towards an infrastructure that reflects the architectural, engineering and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture …”

Well, that’s different.

When did architecture become political? And what’s the big deal about “the progeny of European architecture?” Are we being overrun by non-European architecture? Is foreign architecture somehow endangering our American identity?

For the answers to those questions, we turned to Aaron Betsky, director of Virginia Tech’s School of Architecture + Design, a regular columnist in Architect magazine and a Fox News expert for the network’s “America Builds” series.

Here’s what he tells us: “This all started when Trump started harrumphing about the Hoover Building opposite his hotel in D.C. He wants to tear that indeed rather ugly structure (bad buildings come in all styles and flavors) so he can develop it with all his usual glitz.

A group of deeply conservative architecture critics rode his coattails to promote their own agenda.”

That J. Edgar Hoover Building, which houses the FBI, is an example of Brutalism, an architectural style that became popular in Great Britain in the 1950s, where it was widely used because it was a cheap way to rebuild in the post-war era.

To that extent, Brutalism actually qualifies as “progeny of European architecture.” It even has some, dare we say it, Anglo-Saxon heritage. But this isn’t the kind of European architecture the America Firsters want.

Brutalist architecture — the unfortunate name comes from the French term béton brut or “raw concrete” — is very, shall we say, minimalist. That plainness has been called “cold” and “soulless.” That same plainness also often makes it popular because it’s cheap to build. The America Firsters apparently prefer classical architecture. You know, with columns. In that way, the America Firsters favor southern European architecture over northern European, which is rather delicious historical irony. We can see the change over time here in Roanoke with the municipal building: The original was classical; the addition was modernist. Call it Jekyll and Hyde architecture.

Betsky cautions: “Most of what counts for Classicism these days is a collection of columns, pediments, and white-painted window frames that you can use to cover any dumb box and make it look important. It is simply too expensive, wasteful, and impractical to create truly classical buildings.”

He adds: “What you can say is that Classicism is a great way to spend and show off wealth up front, while it disappears in the back where the slave quarters are. The Lawn at UVa is a great example. It might be one of our greatest democratic spaces, but it is also a monument to slavery, land grabs from Native Americans, and a misguided idea that we could live a semi-agricultural utopia.

“The reason why white, right-wing politicians have now made a point of championing neoclassicism, however, has little to do with such realities. Rather, they are making use of the fact that most buildings the U.S. and state or local governments have commissioned over the last half century or so have been pretty bad.

“That has little to do with their style, and everything with how much money we spend on them and design-by-committee. If we invested enough in government buildings and gave architects enough freedom to do the right thing, we would have beautiful, comfortable, sustainable, and accessible buildings for everybody — no matter what the style.”

So there you have it. Maybe Trumpers should gin up some bumper stickers that say “Make America Classical Again”? But don’t expect Democrats to counter with “Build Back Brutalist.” Who knew that America First really meant Architecture First?

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