As anticipated, President Joe Biden has revoked the Trump administration’s December 21 “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” executive order, a modernist architecture-lambasting decree mandating that all new federal buildings constructed in Washington, D.C., be designed by default in classical styles, including neoclassical, Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts, and Art Deco. Outside of D.C., the order commands that applicable federal buildings be “should uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, and command respect from the general public. They should also be visually identifiable as civic buildings and, as appropriate, respect regional architectural heritage.”
“By overturning this order, the Biden Administration has restored communities with the freedom of design choice that is essential to designing federal buildings that best serve the public,” said American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2021 President Peter Exley, in a statement. “This is fundamental to an architect’s process and to achieving the highest quality buildings possible. We look forward to continuing to work with the Administration towards developing policies that create healthy, just and equitable communities.”
As has become customary during the first weeks of the Biden administration, the classical architecture mandate was tossed as part of a larger round of EO- and memo-axing, which in this instance also included squashing a note, established in the wake of last summer’s anti-police brutality protests, that would have curtailed federal aid to liberal-leaning cities—New York City, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon—that the Trump Department of Justice believed to be “permitting anarchy, violence, and destruction.”
Also rescinded by Biden was a legal immigration-curbing order that prohibited the issuing of new green cards during the coronavirus pandemic. Biden said in a proclamation that the order in question “harms the United States” by “preventing certain family members of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents from joining their families here” while also detrimentally impacting “industries in the United States that utilize talent from around the world.” A 2017 measure signed by Trump that concerns financial regulations was also rescinded in last night’s sweep, per Bloomberg.
As for the classical architecture mandate for new federal buildings, it was the object of scathing condemnation from a number of groups including the AIA, which said in a statement reacting to an earlier draft order, revealed in February 2020, that: “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.”
Last year, AIA members sent more than 11,400 letters to the White House in reaction to the controversial February draft EO.
As previously noted by AN, the finalized “traditional” architecture-celebrating order signed by Trump in December was not a full-on ban on modernist federal buildings. It did 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.”
“Communities should have the right and responsibility to decide for themselves what architectural design best fits their needs, and we look forward to working with President-Elect Biden to ensure that,” said AIA CEO Robert Ivy in a statement released following the signing of the December EO. “Though we are appalled with the administration’s decision to move forward with the design mandate, we are happy the order isn’t as far reaching as previously thought.”
While the classical architecture order is officially dead, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), a seven-member independent agency that oversees design review for construction in D.C.’s monumental core and elsewhere in the nation’s capital, remains stacked with Trump appointees. Chairing the commission is Justin Shubow, an outspoken champion of “beautiful/classical/traditional” architecture who serves as president of the National Civic Art Society. Four new members were appointed before Trump left office to replace members (chairman Rusty Powell, vice-chair Elizabeth Meyer, Toni Griffin, and Alex Krieger) whose four-year terms had expired. They include Steven W. Spandle, designer of Melania Trump’s tennis pavilion, and Perry Guillot, the landscape architect who oversaw last year’s overhaul of the White House Rose Garden. As noted by NPR, the entire commission is now composed entirely of white men.
Shubow told NPR in a statement: “We intend to work with the Biden administration to implement change that will build a truly democratic architecture.”