Column: Teflon minimalism: The surprisingly sleek architecture of the GOP convention

People use their mobile phones as preparations are underway at Quicken Loans Arena for day three of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20, 2016.

People use their mobile phones as preparations are underway at Quicken Loans Arena for day three of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio on July 20, 2016.

(Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

The stage at the Republican National Convention, inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, is built to hold multitudes. And by multitudes I mean a parade of complaints about Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter, appearances by the manager of the Trump Winery and a star of “Duck Dynasty” and blunt calls for Hillary Clinton to be thrown in jail.

There have also been references to Sheetrock, avocado farming and Lucifer. On Tuesday night, helping warm up the crowd for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a man named Andy Wist, who runs a waterproofing company in Queens, N.Y., gave a short, laconic speech.

“We restore building exteriors,” he said, before squeezing in a comment about all the ways Clinton “breaks the law.”


What kind of design makes sense for that kind of, um, wide-ranging program?

Since so much of the convention rhetoric has pined for an America that has faded — Tuesday’s theme was Make America Work Again, echoing Monday’s Make America Safe Again and the larger Trump call to Make America Great Again — you might think the stage set would be historically minded, draped with ornament and full of references to empire-building or past glories.

When Trump appeared on “60 Minutes” on the eve of the convention with his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the joint interview was filmed inside Trump’s three-story penthouse at the top of Trump Tower, with the two men sitting on gilded, throne-like chairs that might have come straight from the gift shop at Versailles.

“We need law and order,” Trump told Leslie Stahl, as a large candelabrum hovered in the background over his right shoulder.

In Cleveland, the campaign has gone for something sleeker, more anodyne and a good deal less traditional. There are no Obama-style Greek columns for Trump. Nor has he revived the domestic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright the way Mitt Romney did during the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa, Fla.

Instead the set is a shotgun marriage of Star Trek and Macbook modern, with perhaps a touch — in the rounded stairs, lighted from below — of Art Deco. A dark oval stage is flanked by a pair of canted silver walls, between which hang several giant video boards.

The goal seems to be a series of smooth surfaces to which none of the more direct ad hominem verbal attacks or accusations of plagiarism might stick — a slate that can be wiped clean whenever a change in tone or direction is wanted. Call it Teflon minimalism.


For those of us watching on phones, tablets and television screens, this gap between the nostalgic and often aggressive rhetoric of the speeches and the sleek, vague futurism of the set design has been among the convention’s most striking elements.

The onstage vitriol and chants from the audience have bounced oddly off the streamlined, ornament-free backdrop. It’s as if a bunch of mud-covered actors from “Game of Thrones” or “The Crucible” wandered into an Apple store.

Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech, in Denver, was marked by a similar contradiction, but with the rhetorical and architectural symbolism reversed. He gave upbeat, forward-looking remarks about change while flanked by a purpose-built classical colonnade made of drywall and plywood.

As is true with the speechwriting duties, it’s not easy to figure out precisely who deserves credit for the stage design in Cleveland. As far as I can tell, no architects have come forward to claim the set as their own so far, though at least one website suggests that the Los Angeles production design firm Shaffner/Stewart, which worked on earlier GOP conventions, was involved this time too. (Shaffner/Stewart didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Two men who have gone on the record taking responsibility for the look of the event are Republican National Convention CEO Jeff Larson and the convention’s executive producer, Phil Alongi, a veteran of NBC News.

As Politico pointed out, Alongi’s recent credits include “the Discovery Channel’s live telecast of daredevil Nik Wallenda’s tightrope crossing of the Grand Canyon.”


Wallenda survived that stunt. Trump and company, white-knuckling it all the way, have a bit of high-wire yet to conquer.

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