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Trump goes trad: US President drafts order to ‘Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again’


Architects in the US have ‘strongly condemned’ a draft order by Donald Trump seeking to ’make federal buildings beautiful again’ by demanding they are all built in a Neoclassical style

The president’s draft order, obtained by the US architecture title The Architectural Record, states that ’the Classical architectural style will be the preferred and default style’ for new and upgraded federal courthouse buildings.

If approved, the order would rip up the 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, which explicitly says ‘an official style must be avoided’ and that new buildings should reflect their own times.

The move has been swiftly condemned by the American Institute for Architects (AIA), which has launched a petition and open letter against the ‘top-down directive on architectural style’.

It said: ’The AIA strongly and unequivocally opposes this change in policy to promote any one style of architecture over another for federal buildings across the country.’

The draft order’s title, Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again, references Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, ‘Make America Great Again’ and signals a move away from the decidedly unclassical style of his own buildings, such as the 58-storey Trump Tower in Manhattan.

However, there are also clear echoes of the language deployed by the UK’s own Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (BBBC), led by the late Roger Scruton, which for a brief spell in 2018 reignited the ‘style wars’ of the 1980s.

At the peak of the row, then housing minister Kit Malthouse enraged architects when he used an image of a Neoclassical federal courthouse building in the US state of Alabama as an example of what this country should aspire to build. 

Malthouse tweeted an image comparing a modern scheme by Robin Partington & Partners (now Apt) on Oxford Street with the temple-like Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse by the Chicago practice HBRA Architects. It had the caption: ‘One will stand for centuries, one won’t.

Like the anti-modernist thrust of the BBBBC, the draft order reportedly criticises the quality of existing federal buildings such as Morphosis’ US Federal Building in San Francisco, the US Courthouse in Texas by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects and Arquitectonica’s Wilkie D Ferguson, Jr US Courthouse in Miami for having little ‘aesthetic appeal’.

Arquitectonica Wilkie D Ferguson, Jr. United States Courthouse 2006

Arquitectonica Wilkie D Ferguson, Jr. United States Courthouse 2006

Source: cc (Phillip Pessar)

Arquitectonica Wilkie D Ferguson, Jr. United States Courthouse 2006

These buildings built under the existing General Service Administration’s (GSA) Design Excellence Program, the order argues, have failed to re-integrate ’our national values into Federal buildings’ which too often have been ’influenced by Brutalism and Deconstructivism.’

Design decisions should be left to the designer and the community, not bureaucrats in Washington DC

In its statement, the AIA said: ’The draft executive order defines “classical architectural style” to mean architectural features derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture. There are some allowances for “traditional architectural style”, which is defined to mean classical architecture along with Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish Colonial.

’The draft executive order specifically prohibits the use of Brutalist architecture, or its derivatives, in any circumstance. The AIA strongly condemns the move to enforce a top-down directive on architectural style. Design decisions should be left to the designer and the community, not bureaucrats in Washington DC.

‘All architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.’

Shutterstock boston city hall

The Brutalist Boston City Hall completed in 1968 and designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles (architects) with Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty (architects)

Source: Shutterstock

The Brutalist Boston City Hall completed in 1968 and designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles (architects) with Campbell, Aldrich & Nulty (architects)

Across the pond, UK architects have also expressed their surprise at the news.

Robert Adam, of ADAM Architecture, a Winchester and London-based practice which specialises in classical and traditional architecture said: ’This is extraordinary coming from a country led by the most bad-taste exponent of bling modernism.

’I agree with the AIA that style directives of this sort are inappropriate but I wonder if there would have been a protest if the preferred style had been “modern”,  to which they did not object in the previous directive – “modern” instead of describing now, in which case it is superfluous, is code for Modernism.

This is extraordinary coming from a country led by the most bad-taste exponent of bling modernism

Meanwhile PLP’s Karen Cook, who designed the City of London’s chunky skyscraper 22 Bishopsgate, said: ‘Architecture is symbolic and styles carry a burden of meaning. So-called Classical style or its derivatives may symbolise America’s founding principles and ideals; alternatively a patriarchal and non-inclusive history.

’I wish America were confident enough to encourage its strong and varied regional vernacular architecture which, by its nature, incorporates local materials and specific climate responses. Citizens want to witness their own cultural identity and values embodied in their civic buildings.’

Morphosis’ US Federal Building in San Francisco

Morphosis’ US Federal Building in San Francisco

Source: (CC) Eric in SF

Morphosis’ US Federal Building in San Francisco

However, US-born Scot Masker of Winchester-based Pro Vision Architects and peer review facilitator at the Traditional Architecture Group, said while prescription of style generally is not a good idea, in the context of America the order ’might not be wrong’.

He said: ‘The founding fathers were looking to establish a more pure democratic process and to then express that philosophy in their public buildings.

’These are not grotesque Stalinist or Ceausescu wedding cakes but buildings drawing on the more fundamental, simpler and aspirational architecture of the classical Greek and Roman forms, an architecture that looked to represent the source of the ideals for a meritocratic and egalitarian society.

He added: ’As well as in Washington DC one can find these beautiful buildings, which are very much works of art, in every US capital city.

The news comes just one week after the GSA’s chief architect and director of design excellence, David Insinga, departed his post, reportedly resigning.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Does hee see himself as the new Caesar, that is Nero not Julius? or has he just been reading Roger Scruton?

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  • This seems very short sighted and might descended into the stripped classicism beloved of despots and dictators. Surely the only morally correct architectural style choice is Gothic? You only have to look at the Houses of Parliament and the Law Courts in the Strand to realise the appropriateness of the style for federal public buildings. The style contrasts sharply with pagan and barbaric classicism, and shows that Gothic or pointed architecture is the only choice for Christians?

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  • .....and surprising. "Greek ship owners bathroom 1970" is the President's usual style preference.

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  • Postmodernism would be a good compromise and is now making a comeback, or has never really gone away. I think ‘ducks’ would be preferable to ‘decorated sheds’ for the Donald...so fire stations could be in the shape of fire trucks or fire hydrants, for example. Law courts could be shaped like Justitia (the blindfolded lady with the scales of justice), and administrative offices could be shaped like filing cabinets etc. This sort of architectural literalism would be appropriate for the present administration, and should allow for liberal use of gold colouring.

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