One size fits all is a bad fit for public buildings
Less than six weeks into 2020, we already have a leading candidate for the year’s most misguided architectural idea: A proposal, now reportedly circulating in the Trump White House, that would make classicism the preferred style for federal courthouses and a wide range of other federal buildings.
The title of the seven-page screed, a draft executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” proves, if nothing else, that its authors know how to curry favor with the slogan-slinging occupant of the Oval Office.
If enacted, it would quash architectural innovation and expressions of cultural diversity, likely saddle taxpayers with more expensive construction costs and undercut the very democratic ideals that such classically inspired national icons as the White House and the Lincoln Memorial so stirringly represent.
The plan is being spearheaded by a Washington, D.C., nonprofit called the National Civic Art Society, which claims that the public finds contemporary architecture “ugly, strange and off-putting.” The copy I obtained says the order would apply to all federal courthouses and agency headquarters, all federal public buildings in the Washington, D.C., area, and other federal buildings expected to cost more than $50 million.
Under the sway of avant-garde modernists, the order asserts, the federal government “has largely stopped building beautiful buildings that the American people want to look at or work in.” Instead, it says, federal architecture “should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance.”
Trouble is, it only deems certain styles “beautiful” — the Greek and Roman Revival as well as others that could be used outside the nation’s capital (including Gothic, Romanesque and Spanish colonial) — and never gets around to specifying what underlying characteristics render a building beautiful.
New styles would not be banned, but they would have to overcome numerous bureaucratic hurdles to get built. And there would be an outright prohibition against Brutalism, the mid-20th century style known for rough-hewn exposed concrete. (President Donald Trump has called one Brutalist building — the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, completed in 1975 and designed by Chicago architects C.F. Murphy Associates — “terrible” and “one of the ugliest buildings” in Washington.)
So much for aesthetic and cultural diversity.
The proposal would make it exceedingly difficult to win approval for anything like the Chicago Federal Center, a modernist masterwork by one of the 20th century’s greatest architects, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The same hurdles would prevent the construction of a federal building that resembled the recently completed, widely acclaimed National Museum of African American History and Culture, whose three-tiered exterior draws inspiration from African art.
The top-down proposal would force architects to drape federal buildings in classical or traditional garb instead of allowing local communities to decide how their federal buildings should look and work. It would reverse widely respected principles for federal architecture that have guided the General Services Administration, the agency responsible for commissioning a vast portfolio of federal buildings, since the early 1960s.
Composed by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who later became a New York senator, the principles explicitly argue against architectural prescriptions. “The development of an official style must be avoided,” the guidelines say. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa.”
There are undertones here of the nation’s Cold War battle against totalitarian regimes that mandated architectural styles, as well as a respect for professional expertise.
The proposal’s departure from those ideas appalled some ardent classicists I contacted.
“The federal government should not be getting into mandating a particular kind of architecture,” said Michael Lykoudis, dean of Notre Dame’s school of architecture, one of the nation’s foremost centers of traditional design. “To be truly inclusive, it means that you look at the best quality of architecture. You don’t set up stylistic parameters.”
“That’s horrifying,” said Aric Lasher, design director at Chicago’s HBRA Architects, which happens to have shaped a neoclassical federal building and courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., that the draft order singles out for praise. “I hardly think that style is really going to be the source of success or failure in architecture. Does Portland want to be represented in the same way as Tuscaloosa?”
In a letter to President Trump, the American Institute of Architects, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, rightly slammed the draft executive order as a “one-size-fits-all mandate.” It also raised a crucial practical point: Classical and traditional architecture, which rely on expensive stonework and decoration, can add substantially to a project’s cost, even tripling it.”
It’s unclear if Trump supports the order. The White House press office would not comment on the draft order, which carries the heading “pre-decisional.”
But the New York Times reported recently that the proposal’s backers hope it will reach the president’s desk “within the next month.” Always an effective counterpuncher, Trump could spin opposition to the plan as the out-of-touch opinions of the cultural elite. Or he could do the right thing and kill the plan, which would cement for decades an architectural legacy that is profoundly anti-democratic.
Blair Kamin has been the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic since 1992.