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A neoclassical vibe for the Obama era

February 01, 2009|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

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, Mo. ("not flashy, but . . . new and fresh"). Another nominated the 2004 main branch of the Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture ("forward-looking, intelligent, jazzy, cool").

As it happens, I've been thinking lately along similar lines. My goal, though, has been slightly 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 many connections I keep noticing between the tone of Obama's first week and a half in office and the ideals and symbolism of neoclassicism.

At first, I wanted to pretend they weren't there. Obama? Neoclassical? What about the precedent-shattering newness of the election of a black president? Wasn't a good portion of his campaign, particularly during the Democratic primaries, dedicated to pounding home the idea of change?

Since winning the nomination and taking office, though, Obama has put an increasing emphasis on continuity and done his best to project a measured, even-keeled temperament.

The economic crisis has made these themes only more prominent for Obama. His inaugural address was sober and plain-spoken, verging on spartan. It emphasized tradition and discipline 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.") Since then, Obama has stressed consensus, tradition and reason -- neoclassical ideals all.

This is not to say Obama's policies won't be driven by an interest in innovation and progress. But the style and tone of his administration are shaping up as noticeably old-fashioned and even conservative.

For those reasons, linking Obama to a flashy new building seems all wrong; the president is determined to prove he is no radical, a member of no avant-garde.

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 postmodernist architecture in the 1970s and '80s. (In that era, columns and pediments were used as ironic gestures or as light counterpoints to the growing self-satisfaction of high modernism. It was classicism in quotation marks, or as a superficial stage set.) It's connected, instead, to much earlier precedents: the frank clarity of paintings by Jacques-Louis David or buildings by Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

Or, to pick some domestic examples, to the public architecture of American cities in the early 20th century, in buildings such as Cass Gilbert's 1935 Supreme Court or the 1911 New York Public Library by Carrere & Hastings. In those designs, as in Obama's public comments during his first few days as president, the emphasis is on a common heritage, discipline and restraint. There is evident style in those buildings -- even panache -- but it's held in check by solemnity and a willingness, even an eagerness, to look to past models. So it goes, at least so far, with the new president.

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christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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