The British monarch and Donald Trump have both tried to impose neoclassical architecture on their countries — and one of them actually succeeded.
by Billy Anania
King Charles III and former US President Donald Trump share a passion for classical architecture (collage by Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)
King Charles III was crowned weeks ago, yet much of the news emerging from Buckingham Palace — other than his outward disdain for the workers serving him — pertains to his past influence over British architecture. His longstanding push for a return to neoclassical design, reflected in his own plans for “sustainable townscapes,” echoes that of former US President Donald Trump. Beyond a common reputation for erratic behavior and lifelong privilege, these two men embody a startling trend among conservative leaders today: The revival of anti-modernism.
Guardian writer Phineas Harper recently claimed that Charles’s campaigns against modernist architects have “accomplished nothing,” and his designs are no match to the United Kingdom’s “profit-driven” system. “Charles is someone who wants to improve a society that he is not part of and will never truly experience or understand,” Harper writes. The Royal Family has indeed failed to compete with corporate landlords, but the former Prince of Wales has still accomplished a great deal in shutting down developments by renowned modernist architects — all while forcing drab, lifeless architecture across Britain and, oddly, in Transylvania (Google “King Charles Dracula” to die instantly).
From a London tower designed by starchitect Mies van der Rohe to three projects by Centre Pompidou co-designer Richard Rogers, Charles has manipulated the parliamentary bureaucracy into abandoning socially conscious projects. As such, he has managed to do what Trump could not: Reconnect nationalist fervor into overt contempt for experimental design. What’s more, Charles’s critiques hit a fever pitch as Thatcherism eroded British social democracy. As Douglas Murphy notes, “Rejecting modern architecture went hand-in-hand with fighting the unions, deregulating the planned economy, smashing industry, and rejecting the spectre of socialism.”
Over the years, Charles has written his own principles of architecture and incited “style wars” against modernist architects, ironically promoting ideological diversity in his poorly run industry publication. In a famous 1984 speech he gave at a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which later became known as the “Carbuncle Speech,” the then-prince expressed his opinion about a proposed extension to London’s National Gallery:
What, then, are we doing to our capital city now? What have we done to it since the bombing during the war? What are we shortly to do to one of its most famous areas – Trafalgar Square? Instead of designing an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery which complements it and continues the concept of columns and domes, it looks as if we may be presented with a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren. I would understand better this type of high-tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect responsible for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.
Charles’s viewpoint very much aligns with Trump’s demagogic aspirations at the end of his presidency, when he returned to real estate after exhausting all other options. In December 2020, while attempting to overturn the presidential election results, he rammed through an executive order for “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” As we noted back then, a draft was hilariously titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” showing how he viewed US government aesthetics as traditionalist and faithful to European Classicism.
“New Federal building designs should, like America’s beloved landmark buildings, uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, command respect from the general public, and, as appropriate, respect the architectural heritage of a region,” the order reads.
The choice of language here feels pointed, from commanding respect to honoring a region’s heritage. Should Americans really feel intimidated by federal structures? And whose heritage does this honor exactly?
As always, Trump’s interpretation of American life elides any practical context. Quite the opposite, national aesthetics have been rooted in the departure from European Classicism since the 19th century, as dictated in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” (1836). An intentionally anti-classical style based on the land’s natural landmarks helped the burgeoning US elite differentiate itself from British rule (which carried its own colonial implications). As such, Trump’s vulgar “RETVRN” moment brings to mind the weirdo alt-right traditionalists who relitigate long-dead debates about abstraction and conceptualism on social media.
It’s also important to remember that Trump is at his core a real estate profiteer — and a legacy child at that. His own buildings hardly espouse classical tradition, or any style at all. Ironically, he once described the Trump Tower triplex in Manhattan as “comfortable modernism” and admitted that each room was designed to enhance value. For that reason, his public disdain for an “elite” of architects feels secondary to the class interests he shares with them.
Trump’s critics argue that he exhibited significant influence over New York City without regard for architectural quality. It seems somewhat baffling, then, that he would turn to neoclassicism, even while his Nero moment swiftly approached. Charles, too, expresses a perceived interest in religious plurality and public well-being, making it difficult to square such a visceral reaction to modern art. That is, of course, unless you consider the ideological implications.
US and British conservatism both stand to gain a great deal from contemporary anti-modernism. After all, we are living in a thoroughly post-postmodern moment, with art and identity more malleable than ever. The monarchy and presidency, as well as the nuclear family and capitalism more generally, are losing legitimacy. Recalling ancient European ideals, therefore, allows Charles and Trump to hearken to a past in which aesthetics was bestowed on high, women were barred from holding office, queer people rarely spoke out, and slavery was still not outlawed — and, importantly, the rule of law dictated social relations.
On top of all that, and perhaps most glaringly, neoclassical architecture was central to Adolf Hitler’s mission of reclaiming Europe for the White race. Hitler saw in classical art an archetype for restoring an old order — the elimination of modernism went hand-in-hand with the attempted erasure of racial and religious diversity, queerness, and communism. Hitler and classical architect Albert Speer touted architectural plurality but nonetheless emphasized the “ideal German way of life” (or Volksgemeinschaft) and the concept of “Form follows function” — which was famously rejected by Frank Lloyd Wright — wherein a building’s design impacts national self-perception.
Instilling nationalist pride through classical forms, therefore, is straight out of the fascist playbook. Interestingly, Charles counts as his collaborator the Luxembourgish architect Léon Krier, an outspoken anti-modernist who has attempted to revive the legacy of none other than Nazi architect Speer.
Charles’s infamous “monstrous carbuncle” speech brought architecture firm Ahrends, Burton and Korale close to bankruptcy and led the New York Times to describe him as the “most prominent architecture critic in the world.” It is frustrating that a world-historical figure could believe nature to be “innately beautiful” in a “sacred order” but remain willfully obtuse to the mathematical harmonies of Le Corbusier. But the monarchy will always stand opposed to technological advancement after the Industrial Revolution nearly solidified their obsolescence. As Murphy argues, Charles’s “dreams of traditionally designed cities” are actually “dreams of a world where people forever know their place.”
This is perhaps best articulated in his model village of Poundbury, located on a hill in the southwestern county of Dorset. Designed with the help of Krier, a series of narrow, winding streets are all oriented around a town square named after Queen Elizabeth I. Rather than on one main street, shops and cafés are spread throughout the village, yet a hodgepodge of contrasting building styles from different centuries directly clashes with Charles’s own principle of avoiding “dissonance.” Is it really “radical,” as Poundbury’s proponents claim, to impose regressive architecture around a statue of your own grandmother? If anything, it is a callback to a simpler time for the monarchy.
As with Trump, Charles’s own designs lack artistic coherence. Critics describe Poundbury as “fake, heartless, authoritarian, and grimly cute” with a “whiff of resignation that there is nothing positive to live for so we must retreat to the past.” In reinforcing ideological adherence through aesthetics, Charles represents the logical endpoint of a contemporary royal family — feeble, outdated, and desperate.