A Neoclassical Mandate?

5. February 2020
The U.S. Courthouse in Austin, Texas, designed by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects and completed in 2012, is singled out in the draft report for having for having "little aesthetic appeal." (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

A preliminary draft of an executive order from U.S. President Donald Trump would ensure that "the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style" for federal buildings.

Architectural Record obtained what it believes to be a draft order titled "Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again." Record states the draft "argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of 'democratic Athens' and 'republican Rome' for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation's 'self-governing ideals' (never mind, of course, that it was the prevailing style of the day)." The draft decries the architectural quality of buildings under the General Services Administration (GSA) as "influenced by Brutalism and Deconstructivism" and having "little aesthetic appeal." 

The GSA, established in 1949, oversees the construction, maintenance, and preservation of federal buildings, such as offices and courthouses, through its Public Buildings Service (PBS). The recent architecture the draft takes issue with stems from the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture laid out by then-future Senator Patrick Moynihan in 1962. He wrote that federal buildings "must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American Government." He stopped well short of defining an official style, instead stating, "The development of an official style must be avoided," and, "Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government. and not vice versa."

The overturning of a 50-plus-year embrace of contemporary and regional architecture in federal architecture for a Neoclassical mandate may seem at odds with the style of buildings commissioned by Trump in his pre-White House years. The buildings that bear his name tend to be modern, sheathed in glass and metal. Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, actually rose on the rubble of the Bonwit Teller building, designed by Warren and Wetmore, the Beaux Arts-trained architects of Grand Central Terminal. But inside, in the spaces where Trump lived and worked, Neoclassical design overruled the modern

Update: Read the draft order here (PDF link).
Model of Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC: the National Civic Art Society tried unsuccessfully to stop its realization. (Photo: Eisenhower Memorial Committee)

The draft order comes just a week after architect David Insinga, a longtime GSA employee and the head of its PBS since 2017, resigned. It's also been about a year and a half since Trump appointed Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which "which approves architecture and design in much of the nation’s capital," per Record. Shubow is a vocal opponent of contemporary architecture, most notably Frank Gehry: the society he heads tried unsuccessfully to block the approval and construction of the Gehry-designed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, which will open in May. 

Shubow was the first of three Trump appointments to the seven-member commission. The other two are James C. McCrery, II, a professor specializing in Classical architecture and urbanism at the Catholic University of America, and Duncan G. Stroik, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, which emphasizes classical and vernacular architecture within traditional urbanism. The four-year terms for the other four commission members, all appointed during the presidency of Barack Obama, will end later this year, allowing Trump to potentially fill the commission with individuals aligned with the draft order's mandate for Neoclassical architecture.

The White House did not respond to Record's request for comment, and given that the magazine got a hold of "what appears to be a preliminary draft of the order," it's impossible right now to know the intentions behind the order beyond issues of style. Some critics see an alignment between the traditional architecture espoused by white supremacists and the nativist politics embraced by Trump and his senior advisor, Stephen Miller. This writer though finds the key in Trump's criticism of, and skepticism toward, intellectuals. He denies the validity of the work of climate scientists, for instance, so it's not hard to see him parting ways with modern and contemporary architecture, which is very much a product of academia. (Notre Dame, mentioned above, is the only school in the United States exclusively teaching Classical ideals in architecture and urbanism.) 

Whatever the intentions are, if the draft order becomes official it will fan the flames in the never-ending style wars between Modernists and Classicists and reshape the look of federal buildings in the future.

In response to the Record article, the American Institute of Architects issued a short 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.

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