In Brief

Trump Wants to “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” by Imposing Classical Style

In a draft executive order, the US government seeks to impose the classical style on federal buildings so that they “once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance.”

The Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. US Courthouse in Miami designed by Architectonica, one of the buildings named in the recent executive draft order (photo by Phillip Pessar/Flickr)

In a chilling throwback to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, which Trump has cited as one of his favorite books, the White House is considering issuing new recommendations for federal architecture that favor the neoclassical style — think symmetry, proportion, and columns … lots of columns.

Architectural Record obtained a draft of the executive order, surreally titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” It proposes amending the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, authored by late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962 and outlining the standards for public buildings in the US, to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style.” The document was published in its entirety by the Chicago Sun-Times.

The draft order also accuses the General Service Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program of failing to reflect “our national values” in its buildings, specifically calling out 20th century Brutalist and Deconstructivist architecture. According to Architectural Record, the document argues that these styles “fail to satisfy the requirements” laid out in the Guiding Principles; namely, that federal buildings “provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government.”

News of the potential executive order alarmed the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which issued a statement in response to Architectural Record’s story saying it “strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture.” The group continued, “Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture and climates. Architects are committed to honoring our past as well as reflecting our future progress, protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.”

Examples of structures that our current government views as aberrations include the US Federal Building in San Francisco, designed by the American studio Morphosis; the US Courthouse in Austin, Texas, by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects; and Architectonica’s Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. US Courthouse in Miami. None of these buildings represent Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles, but the authors of the reported draft order are of the opinion that they are, quite simply, of “little aesthetic appeal.”

“Federal architecture should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance,” reads the document.

Neoclassical architecture exemplifies “purity” and simplicity in art, values that can take many forms, including not necessarily egregious ones. But coming from the Trump administration — which has demonized immigrants and people of color, defended white supremacists, and jeopardized our freedom of press — the directive to adopt a style that prizes control over artistic expression is symbolic in the most perverse way.

The call for a homogenized approach to federal buildings also dismisses one of the most fundamental tenets of the Guiding Principles, the need for an architecture that reflects and responds to its time. The principles explicitly discourage the development of an official style: “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa,” it states, in an ominous foreshadowing of Trump’s proposal. “The Government should be willing to pay some additional cost to avoid excessive uniformity in design of Federal buildings.”

Last week, the GSA’s Chief Architect and Director of the Design Excellence Program, David Insinga, resigned his post. In a 2017 interview for Architect magazine, Insinga had said, “We want to see new ideas and especially as sustainability becomes more important in our culture. We want to see creative ideas on how people can achieve reduction in energy use, water use, and waste.”

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