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Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A Rebuke to Samia Henni’s ‘The Coloniality of an Executive Order’

by Jordan C. Lewans

Samia Henni calls for the dismantling of American buildings with a European heritage while collecting a huge salary from Cornell University, which was built by White male architects.


I have just finished reading a very silly article by Samia Henni, an Algerian female who teaches at the Department of Architecture at Cornell University. This article, "The Coloniality of an Executive Order", was published by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. The subject of the article is Henni’s criticism of a potential executive order from President Donald Trump under the working title “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”. Citing words from the executive order, Henni writes:

Supported by the National Civic Art Society, the seven-page draft of the order states that: “in the 1950s the Federal government largely abandoned traditional, classical designs, and began adopting mid-century modernism, including Brutalism, for Federal buildings;” and advocates that “architectural styles—with special regard for the classical architectural style—that value beauty, respect regional architectural heritage, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles for applicable Federal public buildings. The text argues that Trump's call for neoclassical architecture (or “classical architecture”) epitomizes the “self-governing ideals” of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and cherishes the architectures of ancient Athens and Rome for their “beauty and visual embodiment of America’s ideals.” 
It seems Henni is unhappy with this prospect. Lest the discussion of the architectural styles of future federal buildings (how many new buildings need there be anyway?) be dominated by balancing structural requirements with desirable and appropriate aesthetics for the given environment, Henni decides to use this opportunity to pitch a fallacious, anti-white argument – or, as she describes it, “… to unpack the violent coloniality that the text of the executive order embodies.”

This article was published in the midst of ongoing unrest and violence by Black Lives Matter activists and their assorted fellow travellers, including anarchocommunists, anti-white agitators, and anti-government insurrectionists. Herd mentality is a strong factor when crises occur, and it only takes the initiative of a few bolder-than-average individuals to motivate others to follow their direction. In the midst of attempts by the adults in the room to find actionable and effective solutions to legitimate grievances, efforts must simultaneously be made to counter tactless, europhobic sentiments from opportunists who previously had no cover to venture into that territory.

As I mention above, ideal style considerations for new buildings must balance both the desirable aesthetics (more subjective, although not entirely) with the physical requirements of the end users of the building (more objective). Certain emotional effects that a building might have on a minority of the population has, or should have, little weight in the planning process. Yet, those certain emotional effects are the main consideration for Henni:
… the prescription of neoclassical architectural style as “the preferred and default style” for new U.S. federal public buildings at home and abroad—as well as for their renovation, reduction, or expansion—signifies a continuation of U.S. imperialism.
One would expect an undergraduate in politics or sociology to make the incredibly simplistic and juvenile argument that the buildings built by the U.S. Government have everything to do with “imperialism”. A serious scholar of architecture should not be so dismissive of the aesthetics of architecture, and this is a principle that applies to the world around, wherever there be institutions that have access to public wealth via taxes. Pursuit of excellence, heritage and pride in the buildings of nations and cities are always important factors in architectural decisions.

Mandating artfulness and tradition is nothing to be ashamed of. But Henni appears to think otherwise:
The Capitol Building and the White House, both constructed during the late eighteenth century and mentioned in the executive order, may be espoused in the executive order as “symbols of democratic self-government,” but are as pervasively icons of the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires, of the colonization of the Americas, of the annihilation of Indigenous people and their environment, and of the enslavement of African people. Imported by Europeans from Western Europe, this very architectural style testifies to a colonial presence in a colonized territory. In addition to fortifying conservatism and Eurocentrism incarnate in U.S.-centrism, and undermining design freedom and contemporaneity, the order eulogizes the massacres of Native Americans, enslaved African people, and other oppressed communities to ultimately reinforce white supremacy. Moreover, the idea of erecting a neoclassical building today evokes images from the Second World War, when Benito Mussolini in Italy and its colonial empire, Adolf Hitler in his Third Reich, Joseph Stalin in his empire, and others ordered the use of classical aesthetics to mark their occupied territory, unify the physical appearance of their presence, and celebrate powers that were certainly not based on democratic values.
The paragraph is so subjective, so flimsy, and so hatred-filled, it is shocking. If Samia Henni holds a doctorate, she should be utterly ashamed, and should resign from bearing the title of "Professor of Architecture". How does one even begin to unpack this?

Capitol Building

For starters, the ancient Greek and Roman empires have nothing directly to do with the colonisation of the Americas or the African slave trade. The love in many of classical Hellenic architecture comes from the fact that the ancient Greeks were the world’s vanguards in terms of both scientific and artistic brilliance. During the Classical Era of Greece, Greek scientists were building temples of extreme architectural complexity (for the era) when most of the world’s population were living in mud huts or lean-tos.

Classical Greek architectural style traveled around the Mediterranean via the merchant network, then spread en masse to Italy after the Roman Empire absorbed Greece. Classical Greek architectural style then spread even further westward to Roman provinces, which later became independent kingdoms after the collapse of Roman power. The style then spread across the Atlantic as extra-European settlements grew. Innovations and new accoutrements were added as needed as the centuries have passed, but the common respect for the original, pre-industrial geniuses (shall I say genii?) who pursued mastery and unification of science and art remained.

But it seems that the only things that these architectural styles represent to Henni are
… the colonization of the Americas, of the annihilation of Indigenous people and their environment, and of the enslavement of African people… massacres of Native Americans, enslaved African people, and other oppressed communities to ultimately reinforce white supremacy. 
It is quite a leap to make; I do not believe an objective observer could perform such a leap. It would seem to require a particular bigotry and psychological resentment against Euro-Americans and disdain for their mostly proud history to associate the beautiful federal and state capitol buildings with genocide.

The name “Samia Henni” would suggest that the author is of Arabic origin. The Arab tribes originate from the Arabian peninsula, most of which today is composed of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemen. Yet, the Arabic people stretch from as far east as southwestern Iran and as far west as Morocco. The Arabic-Muslim imperialistic and cultural influence of antiquity extended even farther – as far east as Kazakhstan and China's Islamic territories, right into Sudan and Mauritania. I doubt Henni would so negatively associate the Arabic-Islamic architectural styles in these regions with the violence and terror that the Arabs wreaked upon those peoples they intruded upon and perceived to be ‘infidels’.

I would be interested in seeing Henni’s opinion if, by some chance, Spanish nationalists began setting dynamite and bulldozers upon Moorish architectural sites in Spain.
… the idea of erecting a neoclassical building today evokes images from the Second World War, when Benito Mussolini in Italy and its colonial empire, Adolf Hitler in his Third Reich, Joseph Stalin in his empire, and others ordered the use of classical aesthetics to mark their occupied territory, unify the physical appearance of their presence, and celebrate powers that were certainly not based on democratic values.
This is the most fallacious and flimsy section of this entire paragraph. Should all U.S. federal buildings be mandated to be built in a bland, soulless, post-modern style (perhaps with self-cleaning glass), in order to avoid any remote association with the characters Henni mentions? It is so utterly childish and silly, it need not even be argued against further. She continues:
This centralized order opposes not only the U.S. Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture issued in 1962, which prevented the imposition of a uniform federal architectural style, but also contests the efforts of numerous architecture instructors as well as the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB)—the organization that accredits architectural education programs—to “ensure that students understand the histories and theories of architecture and urbanism, framed by diverse social, cultural, economic, and political forces nationally and globally.”
I read the U.S. Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, and it is a short and sensible guide. In my opinion, the only reason that the U.S. Government would need any new buildings at all would be if it continues to grow in staff or scope. Hopefully, it will not, and thus it can simply maintain and renovate the members of its current portfolio of real estate. It is however amusing that, after implying that the use of Greek neoclassical architecture is akin to condoning genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Afro-Americans, Henni defends this report which makes use of the Athenian general Pericles’ quote: “We do not imitate, for we are a model to others.” For our further amusement, Henni calls for us to “understand the histories and theories of architecture and urbanism, framed by diverse social, cultural, economic, and political forces”. Henni’s own views are not diverse or understanding of histories at all; they appear to be motivated entirely by a brown feminist envy of Euro-American culture and history.

Her essay continues:
This endeavour invites educators to revisit syllabi, study, and discuss architects, buildings, movements, theories, and historical events from a transcultural, transnational, and trans-geographic perspective. The order is, in fact, in opposition to this standpoint. It opposes criticality, inclusiveness, and diversity. It incites to preserve a conservative attitude often entangled with masculine white Eurocentric principles. This is not a critique of scholars who identify as such and have, as many others, contributed to architectural histories and theories, but rather is an observation that, even as a not-homogenous group, they do not, and cannot, represent everyone.
The United States of America was founded and largely built by masculine men of European ancestry. They have put in and sacrificed the most to build the USA since its inception, and thus any claim by Euro-American men to the greatest stake in the country is to at least some extent legitimate. If Samia Henni has a problem with EuroAmerican men who take pride in the efforts of their ancestors and endeavour to honour them, she ought to find another country to live in and another university. But we know she would never give up her academic position at Cornell, a university created by white men, for a trashy university in Algeria.
To denote and acknowledge the histories of destroyed and built environments in the U.S.—both violent processes—is to expose the coloniality of history-writing and policymaking and simultaneously urge for an intersectional analysis of architecture and the political… (t)his dispossession was architectural, territorial, environmental, cultural, linguistic, and educational—and such strategies are particularly reinforced today with the rise of right-wing nationalists around the world.
I greatly admire the efforts of the likes of Viktor Orban, Marine le Pen, and other “right-wing nationalists around the world”. Not only do they have the fidelity to honour the sacrifices their ancestors made for them, but having few allied media outlets and a bevy of globalist corporations, governments, and terrorists arrayed against them, they have leagues more courage and backbone than most politicians. But I know the executive order in question does not concern Hungary or France respectively, but the USA; folk of European origin arrived on this continent much later than the Native Americans did. But the Capitol buildings and other neoclassical federal buildings are not built upon the wreckage of Native Americans edifices. The idea that the use of ancient Greek and Roman inspiration in new federal buildings somehow represents a social replacement for (non-existent) Native American architectural style is ludicrous.
… Eurocentrism—embodied in U.S.-centrism—fortifies the self-justification and self-legitimization of the supremacist attitude of among settler-colonial Europeans, which is rooted in systems and notions that they themselves created, controlled, and disseminated. To this end, a systematic racial division and classification of space and architecture—of form, style, colour, building materials, etc.—was, and is still, imposed. This approach is undeniably associated with the exploitation and extermination of then existing environments, places, spaces, and people.
What is she suggesting? That a government in a First World country not take pride in its history? That Euro-Americans (“settler-colonial Europeans”) feel nothing but shame and illegitimacy for their existence? For a woman who claims to seek nuance and balance, Henni seems to have a bigoted view of EuroAmerican history and existence. It seems to her that the very presence of “Eurocentric” architecture, culture, and people in the USA is both undesirable and illegitimate. Let us break down this paragraph, sentence by sentence:
Eurocentrism—embodied in U.S.-centrism—fortifies the self-justification and selflegitimization of the supremacist attitude of among settler-colonial Europeans, which is rooted in systems and notions that they themselves created, controlled, and disseminated.
She mentions “self-legitimization” – specifically, of the “supremacist attitude” of Euro-Americans, which she refers to as “settler-colonial Europeans”. In this, she appears to imply that considerations of the USA being part of the European World – demographically and linguistically – are an outrage, and akin to genocide.

She also mentions “systems and notions that they themselves created, controlled, and disseminated”. She speaks of these notions and systems as though they were smuggled in, as if they are fraudulent, as if they are illegitimate.
To this end, a systematic racial division and classification of space and architecture—of form, style, colour, building materials, etc.—was, and is still, imposed. This approach is undeniably associated with the exploitation and extermination of then existing environments, places, spaces, and people.
To the first statement: exactly what forms, styles, colours, and building materials have her so deranged? An educated adult who has a basic understanding of the ancestral origins of most Americans should not be genuinely shocked or offended by these things. To the second statement: how is it undeniable that the use of neoclassical architecture in the USA is associated with “extermination of then-existing environments, places, spaces, and people”. It is certainly deniable! It is the responsibility of all those who are not beholden to such asinine statements to deny it!

“Eurocentrism” is not the only thing that has Henni deranged. Apparently, she believes that neoclassical architecture somehow represents sexism:
Along with race, there are other stratifications, such as class, religion, and gender, that the order appositely overlooks.
As to class, there are very few architectural styles that can be said to represent those underneath the middle class – perhaps shantytown spit-and-wire jobs. As to religion, perhaps she is hoping that the U.S. Government will incorporate Islamic architectural styles into their new buildings?
From an intersectional viewpoint, “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” does not make any effort to represent the multiple profiles and diverse backgrounds of U.S. taxpayers who might prioritize other urgent obligations when it comes to architecture. They might want to see their taxes used to promote equal, diverse, and inclusive norms and forms, to help address anthropogenic climate change or support efforts in renewable energy and sustainable building materials.
Clearly, the only profiles and backgrounds of U.S. taxpayers that Henni respects are those of the non-European variety. Otherwise, she would not so dramatically compromise a position of true balance and considerateness in favour of a rabid bitching spree. I notice she uses the word “might” twice in short order.

Lest it enter her thoughts that any significant number of Americans “might” want to see some continuity of their historical cultural references. Lest it enter her thoughts that many if not most Americans might prefer norms and forms that provide the best results, rather than “equal, diverse, and inclusive” results.
A critique of the coloniality of this order entails the possibility for decoloniality, which is not to be mistaken with decolonization. 
Oh, well that’s good. I was genuinely expecting her to come out in favour of demolition of state capitols et al as part of the popular war against ‘systemic racism’.

She goes on to quote from a book titled On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. She mentions the term “decoloniality” as describing a pushback against “modernity/coloniality/capitalism/heteropatriarchy”. In other words, her hatred of mandated neoclassical architecture is part of her own larger war against the legacies of the numerous white males of history, who by their ingenuity increased their influence throughout the world and gave us all what we have today. Her socio-political position as a hardline cultural Marxist could be easily confirmed by a third-year PolSci student as part of a mid-term assignment.

I personally enjoy Brutalist architecture; I believe it relates a power and timelessness in the purity of the poured concrete. But for the most important buildings of a republic or democracy, such as state capitols and provincial legislature buildings, I greatly desire to see them preserved as best as possible for posterity. Not being a U.S. citizen, I have no direct stake in whether or not this executive order is passed. However, ideas traverse the U.S.-Canada border readily, and I warily stand guard against the transmission of ideas such as those purveyed by Samia Henni in this essay, ‘The Coloniality of an Executive Order’: the idea that our architectural heritage, being of European origin, is inherently imperial (and unstated but implied by Henni, inherently immoral); the idea that our art and architectural history inherently represents violence and genocide; the idea that the achievements of antiquity need to be delegitimised and even destroyed, merely because ‘too many’ of them came from heterosexual men and people of European descent.

I am not a professional psychologist and thus I won’t go into an in-depth speculation of Henni’s mindset. However, it is my opinion that she finds GrecoRoman architecture to be emotionally overwhelming – due to their mathematical sense and their boldness in placing very heavy materials on such high centres of gravity, perhaps – and cannot peaceably accept whose ancestors it was who were its originators. It is my belief that cultural Marxism is an attractive political orientation to those who are consumed by envy of those of antiquity who achieved mastery that they themselves never will, and thereby seek to create sociological tools to delegitimise the value of those achievements.

I have only visited three Canadian provincial legislatures – in Edmonton, in Regina, and in Victoria. (I have not yet visited the legislature in Winnipeg, although I am looking forward to it). I will share with the reader a photograph I took of the Saskatchewan Legislature. The view costs nothing, and is available to any seeing person of any origin who cares to come to see.


To annihilate this and other buildings like it is both a grotesque insult to those who came before us and made the effort to design and build it – and also a heavy cost to our children and grandchildren, who will bear the burden of the numbness borne by those who have never stood in the splendour of artistic and scientific brilliance and realised that it was their forefathers who were responsible for bringing it to life.

If the likes of Samia Henni ever set foot before such architectural magnificence, intent on its destruction, I would joyfully shed my blood and give my dying breath in its defence.

****

Editor's Note:

Email Samia Henni: Ask her why she teaches at a university, Cornell, where the buildings were designed by White Male architects in the style of the Second French Empire. Ask her if she loves living in a White created nation more so than in Algeria. Ask her what talents she has in architecture other than expressing envy and resentment against the architectural superiority of White Men.

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