Trump's plan to build 10 new American cites is a right-wing dream of 'trad havens for beautiful families,' the internet's favorite architecture critic says
Architecture critic Kate Wagner says Trump's plan to build "freedom cities" is nothing new.
She argues Trump is pushing a right-wing "aesthetic culture war" against urbanism and progressivism.
"He's just gonna create trad havens for beautiful families," she told Insider. "I think it's kind of crazy."
When former President Donald Trump recently debuted his 2024 campaign pledge to charter up to ten new American cities on federal land, critics and supporters alike didn't really know what to say.
Some conservatives praised his national "beautification campaign," others panned his plan to engineer a "baby boom" in these new cities. Some on the right condemned the proposal as a "leftist plan" to create high-tech, government chartered metropolises like those being built in Saudi Arabia.
And Kate Wagner, the architecture critic and author of the popular "McMansion Hell" blog, argues Trump's plan is part of a much bigger, decades-long "aesthetic culture war" the political right has waged against modern architecture, urbanism, and progressivism.
Her take harkens back to when, as president, Trump called for a return to classical architecture and made racist appeals to suburban voters whose neighborhoods he argued Democrats were "destroying" by promoting affordability and inclusivity. "The 'suburban housewife' will be voting for me. They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood," Trump tweeted in 2020, warning that Sen. Cory Booker, a Black Democrat, would help build affordable housing under a Biden administration.
With his freedom cities, which Trump says will feature plentiful single-family homes and both regular and flying cars, Wagner says he's applying his traditionalist aesthetic to the creation of cities, or as she describes them "trad sprawl."
Conservative politicians and their supporters have long glorified classical design, derived from ancient Greek and Roman architecture, and denigrated modern architecture with its clean lines and new materials. In Europe, traditionalists have tried to tie brutalist architecture, characterized by concrete and geometric shapes, to the post-war welfare state and socialism. Far-right commentator, Paul Joseph Watson, called the creators of modernism "the social justice warriors of their time" and "aesthetic terrorists." There's a whole eco-system of classical architecture proponents on Twitter with Roman statues as their avatars who decry modernism.
"Now he's moved beyond just aesthetics and into this notion of sort of right-wing isolationism," Wagner said of Trump. "It's not necessarily about growth. It's about creating beauty or it's about places for families, which of course is a kind of heavy right-wing dog whistle."
—ArchitecturalRevival (@Arch_Revival_) April 8, 2022
The builder of glitzy skyscrapers shuns modernism
Wagner argues that Trump's embrace of traditional architecture is inconsistent with the design preferences expressed for decades through his real estate projects. Trump became known in the 1980s and 90s for erecting a slew of shiny late-modern skyscrapers, perhaps most famously Trump Tower on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.
While Trump's interior decor is famously gilded and gold, evoking a dictator's palace, his towers are largely standard modernist fare.
"Trump's aesthetics are kind of just glitzy, but he also never was an anti-modernist," Wagner said. "Like the inside of his apartment at Trump Tower looks like Versailles, but the outside is just classic '80s modernism."
But at some point, Trump joined the conservative effort to banish modernism and return to the Greco-Roman, Colonial Revivalist, traditionalist past. The shift was most notably expressed in December 2020, when Trump signed a controversial executive order, called "Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture," and created a President's Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture. The order made classical architecture — think columns, marble, symmetry — the preferred style for federal buildings. He called modernist architecture "ugly and inconsistent," but didn't go so far as to ban it.
Architects overwhelmingly condemned the policy. Reinhold Martin, an architecture professor at Columbia University, told the New York Times at the time that the order was "an effort to use culture to send coded messages about white supremacy and political hegemony," likely referring to the right-wing's promotion of traditional Western architecture as superior to other styles. President Joe Biden reversed Trump's order and disbanded the Council shortly after taking office.
"He realized, I think pretty cynically, he was willing to abandon his personal aesthetic preferences in order to capitalize on this weird aesthetic culture war that has kind of revived itself as the United States has entered more of a rightward turn," she said.
'Trad havens for beautiful families'
In rolling out his freedom cities, Trump explicitly renewed his call to return to so-called traditional Western design.
"We will get rid of bad and ugly buildings and return to the magnificent classical style of Western civilization," he said in a video announcing his plan on Truth Social.
Wagner says Trump's embrace of classical architecture echoes the right-wing war on modernism that began in the 1980s. As part of that backlash, mainstream traditionalists and far-right, reactionary opponents of modernism found themselves aligned.
"During that period there began to be a meeting of the minds between a kind of architectural thinker who was interested in traditional architecture from like a preservation standpoint or like a critical regionalist standpoint," Wagner said. "For some reason, there also emerged alongside of those advocates a group of people who started to make statements that people neurologically prefer classical architecture."
Those who argued that people prefer traditional designs, including the influential modernist critic and architect Leon Krier, also promoted the idea that American design was "degenerate." Notably, Adolf Hitler and infamous Nazi architect Albert Speer, characterized modern and Bauhaus architecture as "degenerate."
"It became heavily tied to these undertones of European supremacy," she said. "Like, 'we ruined Europe, we ruined the world. We live in a degenerate society because we are building these ugly modernist buildings and all people want is humble traditionalism.' It started to get inflated with this right-wing rhetoric of returning to tradition, the traditional family, you know, harkening back to a better day, which is of course the days when women couldn't vote and stuff."
Trump's proposal to build what sound like sprawling suburban communities with classical design is a counter to urbanism, which calls for denser, more walkable cities and which conservatives have increasingly associated with liberals.
"He's just gonna create trad havens for beautiful families," Wagner said.
For now, though, the fate of Trump's dreams of a return to classical style, large families, and sprawling suburbs remain a decades-long unfulfilled dream.
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