Donald Trump thinks only traditional buildings are beautiful. He’s wrong

In between plotting a coup, pardoning war criminals and executing convicts, Donald Trump has found time to sign an executive order on promoting beautiful federal civic architecture.

It cites the example of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who based America’s civic architecture on that of the ancient (and slave-owning) democracies of Greece and Rome. “Classical and traditional” architecture, it states, is more popular and beautiful than more modern approaches, and should be the preferred style of new federal buildings.

In fact, America has beautiful and popular non-traditional structures – the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles – and it has crude and soulless classical buildings. Unfortunately, the authors of the order are not completely wrong when they say that some architects have ignored public feeling.

You don’t have to be a Trump fanatic to dislike the 2007 San Francisco Federal Building, a self-indulgent and aggressive pile by the award-winning Morphosis Architects and a particular target of the executive order’s disapproval. If architects don’t want to give ammunition to the repressive thinking behind this order, they have to show that there are better ways to engage the public.

Lethal mistakes

Libertarian commentators have spent most of the year making claims about Covid that sounded dubious at the time and now look very wrong indeed: there will be no second wave; it’s no worse than flu; herd immunity is the answer; face masks are pointless. Britain should emulate Sweden, they said, the country whose approach has now been called a failure by its king and prime minister. Let some old people die, they said, for the good of the economy.

But business doesn’t boom when tens of thousands are dying. A friend just lost her mother and brother to Covid. Conceivably, they might have been among the unlucky ones even if Britain hadn’t had one of the highest global infection rates. What is almost certain is that many people like them could have survived if the government hadn’t yo-yoed between belated lockdowns and over-optimistic relaxations. The drumbeat of misinformation from commentators can only have contributed to this erratic and lethal behaviour. Wouldn’t it be a fine thing, although not much comfort to the bereaved, if they now admitted they were wrong?

His number’s up

Philip Johnson, one of the most influential US architects of the 20th century, was a white supremacist and a fascist. From 1932 to 1940 he enthused over the Nazis, calling their rallies “exhilarating” and translating and disseminating their propaganda, while also founding a far-right party called the Gray Shirts and supporting the antisemitic preacher Father Coughlin. As a reporter for Coughlin’s periodical Social Justice, Johnson went with the Wehrmacht into Poland, and described as “stirring” the sight of Warsaw burning.

In 2010, Harvard Graduate School of Design bought a house, designed by Johnson for himself in the early 1940s, which was informally known as the Philip Johnson Thesis House. It has now been renamed 9 Ash Street to avoid any risk of seeming to approve of him. Which starts a now-familiar cycle of debate: is it erasing history to remove these creeps’ names from places of honour? What should be done about the many fine buildings built by and to the glory of not-nice people further back in history?

Well, here’s a thought experiment: suppose that the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley had been a famous architect, would we be comfortable with an Oswald Mosley House at, say, the University of Cambridge?

• Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture critic