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The neoclassicism of Barack Obama

January 30, 2009 |  5:00 am

Denver stage set

Over at his blog Hello Beautiful!, architecture writer and public radio fixture Edward Lifson has been asking the following question: "If Barack Obama were a building, what building would Barack Obama be?"

In response, one of his readers suggested Steven Holl's spare, luminous 2007 addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City ("not flashy, [but] new and fresh"). ...

Another nominated the 2004 main branch of the Seattle Public Library, below, by Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture ("forward-looking, intelligent, jazzy, cool").

Seattle Central Library

Coincidentally enough, I've been thinking lately along similar lines. Actually, I'm not sure it really qualifies as a coincidence: The urge to draw parallels between design or architecture and heads of state is hardly new. In his most recent book, "The Judicious Eye," the architectural historian Joseph Rykwert points out that during the reign of Louis XVIII, some observers at the court compared the excessive ornament around the king's bed frame to his round figure.

My goal, though, has been a little different from Lifson's. I'm not especially interested in linking Obama to a single building or architect. What I've been trying to do is make sense of the connections I keep noticing between Obama's first week or so in office and the ideals and symbols of neoclassicism.

At first I wanted to pretend those connections weren't there. Neoclassicism -- which in architectural circles has been unable to shake a dusty, stodgy reputation in recent years -- and Barack Obama? What about the groundbreaking, precedent-shattering newness of a black president? Wasn't a good portion of Obama's campaign dedicated to relentlessly pounding home the idea of "change"?

What about those Shepard Fairey posters?

Shepard Fairey2_3_3

Since wrapping up the Democratic nomination, though, Obama has put an increasing emphasis on history and the long view and gone out of his way to project a measured, even-keeled temperament. The event that marked the shift, in fact, was Obama's August acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Denver -- a speech he gave in front of an aggressively symbolic neoclassical backdrop, below, dropped by his set designers into the steel-and-glass bowl of Invesco Stadium.

Denver stage set   

The deepening economic crisis has only made these themes more prominent -- and potent -- for Obama. His inaugural address, dotted with references to winter, was sober and plain-spoken, verging on spartan. It everywhere emphasized tradition over novelty. ("These things are old," Obama said, referring to a list of virtues including courage, fair play, curiosity and loyalty. "These things are true.") And in his first few days in office, Obama has stressed consensus, continuity, sobriety and reason -- neoclassical ideals all.

This is not to say that Obama's policies won't be driven by an interest in innovation and progress. But the style and tone of his administration are so far shaping up as noticeably old-fashioned and even conservative, with attempts -- some of them transparently strategic and therefore rather self-conscious -- to stitch a line back through history to Roosevelt, Lincoln and even to the Founding Fathers and the Enlightenment.

For those reasons, comparing Obama to a flashy new building feels all wrong; our new president seems determined by both action and symbolism to prove that he is no radical, a member of no avant-garde. If I had to pick a contemporary architect to compare him to, I suppose I'd lean toward Renzo Piano or Norman Foster, both of whom fold traditional aesthetic values into crisp new buildings and seem as impatient as Obama with histrionics and wasted motion. (Foster's design for the British Museum's Great Court is below.)

British Museum

Obama's neoclassicism, it's important to point out, has nothing to do with the playful revival of Greek and Roman forms that was a key part of post-modernist architecture in the 1970s and '80s. (In that era, columns and pediments were often used as ironic gestures or as light counterpoints to the growing self-satisfaction of High Modernism: They put classicism in quotation marks.) It's connected, instead, to much earlier precedents: To paintings by Jacques-Louis David or buildings by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, which gain elegance through frankness and clarity, and which are heavy with the weight of authority that Obama is clearly seeking to establish for his own administration. (Below is David's "Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye," from 1815.)

Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye

There is also a straight line, to pick some domestic examples, to the Obama White House from the public architecture of American cities in the early years of the 20th century, from buildings such as Cass Gilbert's 1935 Supreme Court, below, and the 1911 New York Public Library by Carrere & Hastings.

Supreme Court

In those designs the emphasis is on restraint and common heritage. As pieces of architecture they have style -- even what might be called panache -- but it's held in check by solemnity and sobriety and a willingness, even an eagerness, to look to past models.

So it goes, at least so far, with the new president.

-- Christopher Hawthorne

Credits, from top to bottom: Denver stage set, Keith Bedford/Bloomberg News; Seattle Public Library, Office for Metropolitan Architecture; Shepard Fairey, Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press; Denver stage set, Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty; British Museum, Bryan Chan/Los Angeles Times; Jacques-Louis David's "Portrait of Jean-Pierre Delahaye," Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Supreme Court, Stephen J. Boitano/Associated Press

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