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21 November 2018

How classical architecture became a weapon for the far right

By adopting a visual language of white marble statues, groups such as Identity Evropa have embarked on a culture war to redefine what – and who – is “authentically” European.

By Hettie O'Brien

In March this year, 60 Americans unfurled a banner outside the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee that read “European Roots, American Greatness”. Their choice of building was deliberate. Identity Evropa, the group in question, are atypical of white supremacists. They adopt code names such as “Virgil” and distribute fliers depicting neoclassical sculptures, lending a cultured facade to their racist agenda.

While the Nazis thought neoclassical architecture an authentic expression of German identity, today’s far right updates this doctrine for the social media age. As Stephan Trüby, an architectural historian at the University of Stuttgart, told me, right-wing populists have begun to sharpen their focus on architecture. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland party has spawned a revivalist movement of far-right isolationists who revere folk mythology and Saxon castles. Trüby writes that, “Filled with disgust at any kind of metropolitan multicultural way of life,” these settlers retreat to rural Germany to rehearse the “preservation of the German Volk”.

But the alt-right’s fixation on architectural heritage also reflects the notion of “metapolitics”, a concept popularised by “New Right” thinkers of the 1970s and 1980s. This denotes political domination that extends beyond the state into the realm of culture and ideas. As Guillaume Faye, a French journalist and New Right theorist, put it, “politics is the occupation of a territory”, whereas “metapolitics is the occupation of culture”. By adopting a visual language of white marble statues, groups such as Identity Evropa have embarked on a culture war to redefine what and, by implication, who, is “authentically” European.

The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, author of The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism (1994), is an influence on this movement. Scruton, 74, was recently named chair of the UK government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, a quango that aims to restore notions of “community” and “beauty” to Britain’s urban landscape.

He favours traditionalist architects such as Léon Krier, a disciple of Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, and champions Poundbury, Krier’s mock-Georgian settlement near Dorchester, a place about as authentic as Chessington World of Adventures.

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The controversy that followed Scruton’s appointment, where he denied accusations of bigotry, is partly informed by how easily conservative concepts of “tradition” can be appropriated by those with more extreme views. British activist Paul Joseph Watson, who works for alt-right website InfoWars, last year published a YouTube video entitled “Modern architecture SUCKS” that cuts twice to Scruton, citing his 2009 documentary Why Beauty Matters as a “MUST WATCH”. In common with Scruton’s disdain for brutalist landscapes, Watson’s central thesis is that a tyranny of skyscrapers – modern, postmodern, some as ugly as an “abortion” – have displaced the quaint authenticity of the European townscape.

Scruton was an apt choice for a commission intent on preserving tradition and moral rectitude. A recent tweet by the housing minister Kit Malthouse previewed what lies ahead. Contrasting the curvilinear glass Park House in London with Washington, DC’s Palladian Federal Building and Courthouse, Malthouse declared: “Both built in the last ten years. One will stand for centuries, one won’t… [the commission] will help us create [future] conservation areas.”

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There’s nothing inherently reactionary about the belief that architecture should remain sensitive to local surroundings. But this laconic celebration of Anglo-European heritage descends into something more troubling – the protection of a nativist social order.

Yet such iconoclasm is blind to history. Greek statues were never white, and the binary opposition of modernism versus classicism is a 1980s relapse that masks how contemporary buildings have adapted classical forms.

What narrative does such selectivity advance? As Trüby noted, in Germany certain terms camouflage far-right identity politics. “Words like ‘tradition’ and ‘beauty’ are used to establish ideas of a unified people and nation, which excludes migrants and many parts of the population.” Beauty is infused with connotations of blood, soil and a Volk. We may only hope a similar mutation isn’t at play in the UK.

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This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis