The San Francisco Federal Building, designed by Morphosis, is described as having “little aesthetic appeal” in a draft executive order mandating Classicism as the official architectural style for new federal buildings.
Deane Madsen The San Francisco Federal Building, designed by Morphosis, is described as having “little aesthetic appeal” in a draft executive order mandating Classicism as the official architectural style for new federal buildings.

As has been widely reported, the White House is in possession of a draft executive order, titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” that would overturn the government’s 58-year-old prohibition against an official architectural style. Instead, the order asserts that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style absent special extenuating factors necessitating another style.” In related news, David Insinga, AIA, just stepped down as chief architect for the U.S. General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service, creating an opening for new direction at the organization responsible for much federal architecture.

AIA met with White House staff to explain their opposition to the order and wrote a follow-up letter to the president directly. AIA has also issued the following public statement:

The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture. 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.

AIA is also circulating a petition for members to send to the White House.

According to a copy of the draft executive order obtained by ARCHITECT, the new stylistic mandate covers “(i) all Federal courthouses and agency headquarters, (ii) all Federal public buildings in the National Capital Region, and (iii) all other Federal public buildings that did or are expected to cost more than $50 million ... but does not include infrastructure projects or land ports of entry.”

The draft, which is reportedly the work of the nonprofit National Civic Art Society, defines Classicism as “the architectural style derived from the forms and principles of classical Greek and Roman architecture, and as later employed by such Renaissance architects as Christopher Wren and Robert Adam; such nineteenth-century architects as Charles F. McKim, Robert Mills, and Richard Morris Hunt; and such twentieth-century practitioners as John Russell Pope and the firm of Delano and Aldrich.”

The order forbids “architectural designs in the Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles, and the styles derived from them ...” It opens the door to alternatives—“This preference [for Classicism] does not exclude experimentation with new, alternative styles”—but it does present an extremely high bar for their implementation, including the personal approval of political appointees and the president.

All designs would be subject to public comment and a public review panel, which is an idea worthy of discussion. Less worthy is the requirement that the designers incorporate the feedback. Community engagement should not result in design by committee.

The order also establishes a presidential commission to update the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” to reflect the new mandate. The principles were written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1962, while an assistant labor secretary in the Kennedy administration, and as they stand, they articulate three objectives (emphasis mine):

  1. The policy shall be to provide requisite and adequate facilities in an architectural style and form which is distinguished and which will reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American National Government. Major emphasis should be placed on the choice of designs that embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought. Specific attention should be paid to the possibilities of incorporating into such designs qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located. Where appropriate, fine art should be incorporated in the designs, with emphasis on the work of living American artists. Designs shall adhere to sound construction practice and utilize materials, methods and equipment of proven dependability. Buildings shall be economical to build, operate and maintain, and should be accessible to the handicapped.
  2. The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government. and not vice versa. The Government should be willing to pay some additional cost to avoid excessive uniformity in design of Federal buildings. Competitions for the design of Federal buildings may be held where appropriate. The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.
  3. The choice and development of the building site should be considered the first step of the design process. This choice should be made in cooperation with local agencies. Special attention should be paid to the general ensemble of streets and public places of which Federal buildings will form a part. Where possible. buildings should be located so as to permit a generous development of landscape.

The National Civic Art Society has dedicated itself to “advancing the classical tradition in architecture, urbanism, and their allied arts,” and more power to them. Classical architecture can be wonderful. But it is difficult to love something when it is forced upon you. No one style (or lobby group) can speak for all people. The chairman of the society’s board, Marion Smith, is also president of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation; he of all people should know that dictators such as Joseph Stalin demanded Classicism of their architects. Authoritarianism isn’t a good look. Maybe the society should give the gentler art of persuasion a try. Now that is a lost art.

Moynihan was a Democrat who before his 1977 election as senator from New York, worked for two Republican presidents, as counselor to Richard Nixon (the position currently held by Kellyanne Conway) and as U.N. ambassador for Gerald Ford. Were he alive today, I believe he would support the updating of the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture”—if the goal was building a more democratic society, and mitigating and adapting to climate change. Instead of playing politics over style, we should be working toward an architecture with zero-net carbon emissions, and the survival of civilization as we know it.