Trump signs executive order mandating classical architecture for D.C. federal buildings

A Big Day For Pediments

Trump signs executive order mandating classical architecture for D.C. federal buildings

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Building in Washington, D.C. (Lance Cheung/USDAFlickr/Public Domain)

It’s finally happened. As first reported by Bloomberg, outgoing White House resident Donald Trump has signed an executive order stating that all new federal buildings in Washington, D.C. must be designed, by default, in the neoclassical style. The order also applies to federal courthouses and any federal agency building outside of Washington that’s cost exceeds $50 million.

The modern architecture-eschewing move was roundly condemned and rejected by groups including the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the National Trust for Historic Preservation when an early draft of what is now known as the “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” order first circulated in February.

Said the AIA in an earlier statement reacting to the draft order:

“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.”

Like in the draft, the finalized order spends a fair amount of time thrashing modernist federal buildings with mid-century Brutalist-style architecture being a particular object of scorn. The EO also claims that federal buildings completed since the advent of the General Services Administration (GSA)’s Design Excellence Program in 1994 “sometimes impresses the architectural elite, but not the American people who the buildings are meant to serve. Many of these new Federal buildings are not even visibly identifiable as civic buildings.”

As noted by Bloomberg’s Justin Sink, the order does not explicitly put forth a mandate for classical architecture and is not a full-on ban on modern buildings in the nation’s capital. It does state, however, that all new federal buildings must be “beautiful” and that “classical architecture shall be the preferred and default architecture for federal public buildings absent exceptional factors necessitating another kind of architecture.”

“Beautiful,” of course, can and should be be interpreted as “classical,” and Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society and an outspoken supporter of the Trump administration’s preference for “traditional” architecture, was quick out of the gates to applaud the move. He wrote in an emailed statement:

“Americans have long understood that classical architecture is not only beautiful, it embodies the key values of our representative government. Such distinguished and inspiring buildings connect us to our heritage, and are associated with the continuity, equality, and openness essential to a functioning republic. The design of federal buildings should reflect the aesthetic and symbolic preferences of the people they are built to serve—namely, classical and traditional architecture. Yet since the mid-20th century, Modernist mandarins controlling government architecture have been forcing ugly designs upon us. On Friday, President Trump stood firm for tradition and beauty in public architecture, and for the heartfelt desires of the American people. The National Civic Art Society applauds President Trump for signing this Executive Order, and we look forward to seeing the beautiful buildings that will now become part of his legacy.”

As detailed by Bloomberg, calls for the establishment of a so-called Council for Improving Federal Civic Architecture which will provide recommended updates to the GSA’s existing architectural guidelines. The order will also require the GSA to consider design input and feedback from the general public as well as from the staff of the agency in question that will be housed in a new planned federal building.

As previously noted by AN, the traditional architecture order for federal buildings—and other real estate- and design-oriented edicts and schemes hatched but never realized during the Trump era—may not necessarily be long for this world as the incoming Biden administration gears up to take over the reins later in January.

This is a developing story and AN will update this article as we learn more.

UPDATE: A source has pointed out that the Trump administration could also potentially appoint new members to the seven-member U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees design review for construction in D.C.’s  monumental core and elsewhere in the nation’s capital. The terms of four commissioners expired in November—chairman Rusty Powell, vice-chair Elizabeth Meyer, Toni Griffin, and Alex Krieger—and the administration has already appointed Shubow and two others for four-year terms.