Going Classical

Some architects are up in arms about an executive order apparently being considered by the Trump Administration, called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”  According to a report in the Architectural Record, which says it obtained a preliminary draft of the order, the order would revise the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture” issued in 1962 to ensure that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for new and upgraded federal buildings.

U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.The Architectural Record states that “the draft order argues that the founding fathers embraced the classical models of ‘democratic Athens’ and ‘republican Rome’ for the capital’s early buildings because the style symbolized the new nation’s ‘self-governing ideal.’”  The Record notes that the classical style was the prevailing form of architecture during the time of the Founding Fathers — as evidenced by the designs of Mount Vernon and Monticello.  The Record also reports that the draft order specifically criticizes some recent government buildings for having “little aesthetic appeal.”  The proposed order apparently does make allowances for “traditional architectural styles,” which would include Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial designs — but would ban “Brutalism,” the blocky, massive style of building that came into vogue in the middle of the 20th century and was the preferred style in the Soviet Union.

The American Institute of Architects says that it “strongly and unequivocally” opposes any change to the guidelines for constructing government buildings, and is urging its members to sign an online petition objecting to the proposed order.  According to one on-line report, the AIA says that “[a]ll architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.”

It’s not clear exactly what the Trump Administration is contemplating, as the articles I’ve seen say it isn’t commenting on the draft rule.  However, I wouldn’t object to changing the standards to return federal buildings to the classical style, or the quasi-classical style adopted by many WPA federal buildings built during the 1930s.  I’m glad the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, for example, adopted the classical form of architecture; they are lofty, soaring, graceful buildings that are both attractive and aspirational.

Brutalist and Bauhaus designs are neither of those things.  I shudder to think of what a ponderous, looming, dark, Brutalist Lincoln Memorial might look like — but I’m pretty sure that it wouldn’t have its picture taken by millions of tourists every year, as is the case with the Lincoln Memorial we now have.  If businesses want to go the Brutalist route on their corporate headquarters, that’s fine with me — but government buildings should provide a link to the past and our traditions, and do more than simply adopt whatever the prevailing architectural styles might be at the time.