The Take

U.S. architecture’s public enemy No. 1: the Tea Party

U.S. architecture’s public enemy No. 1: the Tea Party

Posting in Architecture | From issue 05 December 16 & 23, 2014

When it comes to architecture, this political party seems to oppose it all.

What’s the Tea Party line on architecture, and architects?

We know the political party’s ideas on a range of hot-button social issues as well as its general anti-tax, small-government worldview. Surveying the activity across the nation, let’s conclude that architects build, and the Tea Party tears down, to paraphrase Jon Favreau at The Daily Beast.

You’ll find there’s no place for architects in the Tea Party, and no place for the Tea Party in architecture. More than that, the party seems to cast a suspicious eye at all buildings, new or old. Dozens of historic preservation efforts have been targeted by Tea Party chapters, and various new projects have been attacked.

Stop the stadium!

Last week, it was the Tea Party’s aim to derail plans for a new Atlanta Braves stadium designed by HKS Architects. Like every stadium built in modern times, the plan involves state and county funds and tax incentives. Atlanta Tea Party Leader Debbie Dooley told AP, “The government is not supposed to pick winners and losers. This is anything but free-market.”

The government does choose winners, of course, by doling out architecture projects and infrastructure works like roads and bridges. These are consistently opposed by Tea Partiers. Even the federal Design Excellence program run by the General Services Administration (GSA) draws boos.

Mainstream Republicans incur the wrath of small-government Tea Party folks by supporting any spending. Last month, it was Representative Bill Shuster in Pennsylvania, who stuck his neck out for $8.2 billion in federal maritime construction projects.

Apparently, the Tea Party is motivated by its mistrust of certain architectural ideals that to their ears smack of elitism or taste-making.

Demolish first, ask questions later

Tea Party Miami, for example, has been hell-bent on demolishing the 1960 Miami Herald building, with 78 percent of its members in favor of replacing the Naess & Murphy design with anything: a “parking garage, casino, condo or office building.” Their Web site overflows with angry screeds against the Herald’s “bad” Miami Modern (or MiMo) architecture, which the group contends “is not a ‘historic’ style of architecture” and so shouldn’t be protected as a landmark.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation disagreed, saying it would grant the building special status. But in the end, the Tea Party got its wish: The local preservation board in Miami declined to make the structure a landmark, and an 850,000-square-foot Genting casino designed by Arquitectonica will soon replace it.

Another modernist icon, Paul Rudolph’s famed Orange County Government Center in New York state, has been the object of political wrath since it was emptied after a flood several years ago. Phaidon reported on a proposed replacement, “a bland traditional pastiche, or ‘Tea Party Colonial’ as it’s dubbed.” Since the construction cost was given at $136 million, it seems likely to face opposition, even if the red brick image earned it early Tea Party admiration.

McMansion mindset 

New-old architecture is like a magnet for the Tea Party. Its leaders invariably live in suburban McMansions of various sizes, built recently but gussied up to look old and distinguished. A recent news reports showed a pro-immigration reform group staging a rally at one politician's house. It looked like a flock of zombies descending on a generic American homestead in a Walking Dead episode.

New-new architecture is a no-no, however. Anything innovative or vaguely European-looking is abhorrent.

One reason is that the Tea Party believes they’re a sign of government excess or corporate greed, or both. “Government buildings from Congress to the State House to the School House, tend to be much nicer these days than the homes of the individual taxpayers who bore the costs of their construction,” writes Mark Moore, a blogger and “localism” activist on the Web site of the Washington County Tea Party in Fayetteville, Ark.

Moore concludes that “witness of our society's architecture is that two institutions are the most important -- government and the largest corporations. It is no accident that those two are often working together.”

It’s the production values of our fine federal buildings that bothers Moore, along with many other Tea Party members. That’s why the GSA’s Design Excellence program has also been such a big target for its ire, as editor William Menking points out in The Architects Newspaper. Created in 1994, the federal initiative pushes for world-class architecture to match the great works of Jefferson, Latrobe and McKim, Mead and White. The Tea Party, among others, is “itching to axe [it] from the Federal budget,” Menking writes.

Code for creeping internationalism

Design quality aside, the Tea Party even argues against U.S. building codes, which protect the public with common-sense minimums for safety. Again, their issue centers on federalism versus localism.

The most recent push against codes took place in Gilbert, Ariz., “a hotbed of “Tea Party”-style conservative activism,” writes Parker Leavitt in the Arizona Republic. “Outspoken residents have rallied against the proposed codes and have found allies on the Town Council.” Their beef: Codes from the International Code Council in use across most jurisdictions in the United States.

“I see the word ‘international,’ and it scares me,” said one Gilbert resident, Stephen Stirling, who warned his neighbors to not “jump off this cliff and adopt international codes.” Sorry, Stirling: These are U.S. codes, invented and promulgated here, not some global conspiracy.

So when it comes to architecture and construction, our Tea Party neighbors are all NIMBY. They don’t like safety codes. They don’t like saving old buildings. They don’t like building new ones either. Especially if they’re too fancy. Or involve the government somehow. Or corporations. Or both.

The good news is that baseless government shutdowns are temporary. But our national passion for creating great buildings -- that work well -- is as lasting and resilient as our architectural heritage has proven to be.

(Photo: Courtesy of Can't Win This Game)

Share this

C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure