There’s an old adage about how you should never sleep with someone who doesn’t own books. America may be about to embrace a similar idiom about electing a leader without an aesthetic sensibility. Why now? Because Donald Trump has left his mark on America in a way that no candidate has since Thomas Jefferson. He’s built a lot of stuff. And if you want to know how Trump stacks up against the Sage of Monticello, it pays to take a second glance at the buildings upon which he bestows his golden name.
Architecture is often an implied metaphor in politics. From Bill Clinton’s decorative “Bridge to the 21st century” to Trump’s impossible wall, politicians like to use structural symbolism because it makes abstract ideas real for voters. And there’s also this: Politicians, like architects, are responsible for laying a foundation and building something beautiful and lasting upon it. It’s therefore a significant thing to have a builder running for office. The metaphors become more potent.
But Trump is hardly Jefferson 2.0. Trump is a developer whereas Jefferson was a polymath who happened to be good with a blueprint. Still, both men built, and the buildings they created reflect the worlds in which each wished to live.
Ralph Giordano, an architect and history teacher, wrote the book on Thomas Jefferson, architect. Giordano tells Inverse that when he was done consulting with James Madison on the Constitution, Jefferson set about planning Washington, D.C., as a physical representation of democratic ideals. The Constitution guarantees the figurative separation of powers: checks and balances. Jefferson insisted that the nation’s capital should literally separate the powers, and so the three branches of government remain three distinct buildings.
Jefferson founded, planned, and built the University of Virginia, which Giordano points out was the first school ever that “a student could go to a college and decide what major they wanted to pursue.” He recognized that our young nation needed specialists, and so he built the place to find a specialty. UVA’s Rotunda, based on ancient Rome’s Pantheon, was designated the temple of knowledge.
“His architecture, which was neoclassicism — totally revolutionary for its day — represents our permanency: the stone, and the reference to ancient Greece and ancient Rome,” Giordano explains. “He realized that generations pass, people die, and that you need some kind of permanency.”
Trump, on the other hand, is not a trained architect. Trump is a fellow who has worked with a lot of architects, but has always been more focused on opportunity and branding. He decides to build a monolith, picks out an architect, and then builds said monolith. And if he literally demolishes history in the process, so be it. In 1983, Trump demolished the iconic Bonwit Teller on New York City’s Fifth Avenue to throw up Trump Tower.
“When he swung the deal, he [said he] was going to pay for and donate some of the architectural pieces from the façade,” Giordano recalls. “And then he just reneged on it, and they just destroyed it and threw it away.”
Giordano says it’s always helpful to understand the ways in which politics inform architecture. He suggests focusing in on Adolf Hitler and Napoleon, neither of whom were architects, but both of whom selected architects to decorate their short-lived empires. Both reached back in time; both wanted to Make [Country] Great Again. “Napoleon picked Romanticism,” Giordano explains. “That sounds wonderful and beautiful, but it’s actually just a reversion to the conservative ideas of monarchical control, which took such a strong hold during the 1800s.” Hitler commanded his own architect, Albert Speer, to resurrect “the grandiose style of the Roman Empire — not the Roman Republic.” Speer’s job was, as Giordano puts it, to “fulfill Hitler’s megalomaniacal dreams.”
“Hitler also wanted Speer to design the new Ministry building in Berlin,” Giordano explains. “It would’ve looked like the U.S. Capitol, but would’ve dwarfed it — like ten times higher. It was a dome that had never been built, and probably couldn’t have been built. It would’ve been so big that it would’ve had its own atmosphere. Everything had to be big, and he thought that bigger was better.”
Trump also favors the grandiose.
“A lot of the corporate architecture that’s being done today tends to be nondescript, glass towers,” says Giordano. “Where Trump differs is there’s a lot of glitter and glitz.” On top of that, his buildings don’t have public spaces, and they certainly don’t house temples of knowledge. They just have his name in gold on the front.
Still, even Giordano acknowledges that there’s something perversely alluring about Trump’s preferred style. The word he uses is “bravado.” Trump seems to believe that you can get away with enormity and hideousness — and even come across as important — so long as something still glitters.
Jefferson, to the contrary, never sought to humble anyone. He built things for the people — and for the future of the country. Giordano says that when he visits UVA, Monticello, and Poplar Forest, he feels it. He’s instantly comfortable because the buildings don’t impose upon visitors: They welcome all comers.
Somewhere along the way, Americans have lost their own sensibilities — Jefferson’s undoubtedly doing about 180 RPM while six feet under at Monticello — we now fall for the glitz and glam. Trump’s egotistical shrines overshadow Jefferson’s gifts to the public. Jefferson famously said that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Perhaps that’s where we’ve gone wrong. “America doesn’t teach culture,” Giordano says. “America doesn’t teach, fully, what architects do, what artists do, or what ideology means.”
We believe in façades.