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[Updated] Potential executive order might force neoclassical style on federal buildings

Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again

[Updated] Potential executive order might force neoclassical style on federal buildings

President Trump might rewrite the GSA's Guiding Principals of Federal Architecture in favor of neoclassical design. (Shealah Craighead/White House Flickr)

Update 2/6/20: The Chicago Sun-Times published the full draft executive order yesterday. Read the 8-page document here

Among the top news headlines in the country today, the Trump administration apparently hates contemporary architecture. 

Architectural Record has reportedly obtained a draft executive order titled, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” in which the White House will dictate that all future government structures be designed in the neoclassical style. It would force the General Service Administration (GSA) to rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which it has used as the basis of its Design Excellence Program since 1962, while requiring all new and upgraded federal buildings to be designed in the antiquated “preferred and default style.” 

Originally written by former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the principals distinctly noted that when it comes to federal architecture, “an official style must be avoided” and that any new structures must reflect the time period in which they are designed. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa,” Moynihan wrote at the time. Throughout the last six decades, high-profile architects have relished the opportunity to make their stamp on the U.S. government. To Moynihan, the collaboration between architecture, the fine arts, and public officials was to be viewed as part of upholding democracy. 

But it appears that Trump wants to say goodbye to designing for democracy and more specifically, to Brutalism and Deconstructivism, according to the draft. While it’s no secret that the President dislikes Brutalism—he’s previously decried that the FBI’s downtown Washington, D.C., headquarters should be remodeled or demolished. The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building, designed by Charles F. Murphy and Associates, sits directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the Trump International Hotel, a historic, romanesque revival building. Many hotels in the Trump chain feature glass and steel, similar to those found in New York and Chicago. 

Several high-design federal buildings throughout various U.S. cities, according to the draft order, have “little aesthetic appeal,” Record noted, and don’t embody the country’s “self-governing ideals.” Among those citied were San Francisco’s U.S. Federal Building by Morphosis and Miami’s Wilkie D. Ferguson, Jr. U.S. Courthouse by Arquitectonica. Both were built in 2007 and stand boxy and tall, featuring modern materials such as metal rainscreens on the former and a glass curtain wall on the latter. 

A tall boxy building with a unitized metal facade
The Morphosis-designed U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco. (Iwan Baan)

Trump’s turn to classicism, though semi-surprising, shouldn’t completely catch architects off guard, however. Back in 2018, AN reported that he had appointed a staunch classicist to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (and another one as late as last December) in favor of securing approval on future neoclassical projects. The draft order documents that President Trump aims to create a Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture as well, which is reminiscent of the late Sir Roger Scruton’s push to build more beautiful homes and communities throughout the United Kingdom in a self-avowed anti-modernist fashion. 

The news comes just one week after the GSA’s Chief Architect and Director of Design Excellence, David Insinga, reportedly resigned from his post. He had served largely under the Trump administration since December 2016 and made it clear from the start that he sought to improve sustainability and reduce energy usage across federal buildings. So far, Insinga has not commented on his departure.