Last month, an anxious ripple stirred the murky waters of architectural discourse. Architectural Record reported that it had obtained a draft presidential executive order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” which would recast the Guiding Principles of Federal Architecture (1962) to mandate classical stylings for all new and updated federal buildings.
The draft order justifies this decree by asserting that the General Service Administration has not embodied national values in federal buildings because it has allowed Brutalist and Deconstructivist strains to infiltrate their designs. These subgenres of modernism, the draft argues, don’t exemplify the “dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability” of the American government. It specifically references the U.S. Courthouse in Austin (2012) by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, among other contemporary, award-winning civic structures, as having “little aesthetic appeal.” Classical architecture, it asserts, was the choice of the founding fathers because of its source in the proto-democracies of ancient Athens and Rome and continues to inspire “respect for our system of self-government.” To enforce adherence to classical stylings, the order would convene a President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture that would tell architects their business and keep them in line.
The AIA responded immediately to the Record article, issuing a statement, echoed by the Society of Architectural Historians, that it “strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture,” which “should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our rich nation’s diverse places, thought, culture, and climates.” It released a call to action, co-signed by the Texas Society of Architects, urging members to tell the White House that they oppose the order.
The critical response to the draft order was also swift. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin called it “profoundly misguided.” Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster characterized it as a “distraction” and pointed out that, as a developer, the president has not shied away from modern architecture. Even Michael Lykoudis, FAIA, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame — perhaps the only American university that actually still teaches students classical design — wrote in the Washington Post that the order could reduce “an entire architectural philosophy to a caricature.”
On the other hand, David Brussat, former architecture critic for the Providence Journal, wrote on his blog that, no matter what Classicists may think of the president, the order is an opportunity for Traditionalist architects to unify and “fight this battle” to regain the high ground: “Classicists must do a deep think, swiftly, and rise above personality. The stakes are too high.”
The style wars that underpin the draft order and responses to it have been raging ever since Modernist architecture was developed in the years after the First World War. While at that time debating the relative virtues of Grecian columns versus pilotis may have been riveting and pertinent, at this moment, arguments for and against either style ring as boring and beside the point. Furthermore, and most disastrously, this dated disciplinary opposition, which the draft order plays on, conceals the common ground that neo-Classicists and neo-Modernists (let’s face it, both styles are now well in the rearview mirror) share, which is in fact a critique of modernism. For example, both camps preach that architecture should first and foremost be derived from the wishes and needs of the communities it serves, as opposed to being imposed from the top down, and that buildings should be sensitive to street life and be constructed on a human scale. Getting these things right seems more important than whether a building is faced with the marble portico of a 3rd-century BCE pagan temple or the metal and glass curtain wall of a 20th-century skyscraper.
Architecture, it has often been said, transcends politics. Classicism and modernism have been claimed at various times by vastly divergent regimes: democratic, communist, fascist. To say that either style embodies the spirit of any one vision of society is specious at best. Meanwhile, the 21st century has presented architecture with a slew of heretofore unseen challenges: rising sea levels, rapidly changing climate patterns, mass human migrations, accelerating demands on material resources, technologies that are completely changing the way people live their lives. Contemporary architecture, as it happens, has been grappling with these factors for the past 20 years. So perhaps what is really needed now are federal architecture guidelines that empower the architectural profession to offer its expertise to the government, as opposed to the other way around. But oh, wait, that’s exactly what the current guiding principals say: “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.”