Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again – Classical Architecture Default Style
For almost 60 years, the government has adopted a relaxed approach to designs for new federal buildings. The draft order entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” 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 ideals” (never mind, of course, that it was the prevailing style of the day).
The order would rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, a 1960s-era federal policy paper that explicitly renounced the idea of a specific federal style and opened the doors to new approaches. The original Guiding Principles, written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, mandated that Federal architecture “must provide visual testimony to the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government.” The draft document uses the same words—dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability—while declaring that Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles “fail to satisfy these requirements and shall not be used.”
Brutalism is known for its use of functional reinforced concrete and steel, modular elements, and utilitarian feel, Brutalist architecture was primarily used for institutional buildings. The word Brutalist doesn’t come from the architecture’s fortress-like stature, but from the raw concrete its often made from—béton brut. Imposing and geometric, Brutalist buildings have a graphic quality that is part of what makes them so appealing today.
Brutalist Style – Boston City Hall
Deconstructivist Style – is a movement of postmodern architecture which appeared in the 1980s. It gives the impression of the fragmentation of the constructed building. It is characterized by an absence of harmony, continuity, or symmetry.
An architectural style creates a particular feeling for both a building’s occupants and those observing it from the outside. A building’s style can also help it either blend in with or stand out from its surroundings.
“Throughout history, societies have developed unique types of architecture, reflecting local cultural, geographic, and economic forces. The evolution of architectural styles provides a dynamic illustration of the currents of human history, and recognizing different styles is a key skill for any student of architecture.”
The vision for our country today, Make America Great Again. Irregardless of the politics, that is a great slogan. Infrastructure that will carry us into the future with functionality and beauty. Great architecture that will endure more than the 50 year life span of a steel building.
Chicago Federal Center
Maybe the Order arose from the renewed interest in Brutalism.
Bauhaus Style By Founder Walter Gropius
The order, if signed by Trump, would roll back that approach by constraining future federal buildings to fall within a poorly written mandate: “Architectural styles—with special regard for the classical architectural style—that value beauty, respect regional architecture, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles for applicable federal buildings.”
News of the proposed order drew sharp criticism from the American architectural community. “President Trump, this draft order is antithetical to giving the ‘people’ a voice and would set an extremely harmful precedent,” the American Institute of Architects said in a statement. “It thumbs its nose at societal needs, even those of your own legacy as a builder and promoter of contemporary architecture. Our society should celebrate the differences that develop across space and time.”
Other critics took issue with the deeper ideological currents that the order reflected. “We have a duty to advocate for design that reflects the values of the people we serve: ALL of the people,” the National Organization of Minority Architects said in a statement. “The proposed Executive Order, if enacted, would signal the perceived superiority of a Eurocentric aesthetic. This notion is completely unacceptable and counterproductive to the kind of society that fosters justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Freedom of architectural expression is a right that should be upheld at the highest levels of government.”
The New York Times editorial board, for example, denounced the move in an editorial titled “What’s So Great About Fake Roman Temples?” The newspaper blamed the move on “small-minded classicists,” arguing that while such designs may have suited the Founding Fathers, they were no longer appropriate for the country today. “Now the United States is nearly 250 years old; it no longer needs to wear borrowed clothes,” the Times wrote.
“The proposed executive order reflects a broader inclination in some parts of American society to substitute an imagined past for the complexities and possibilities of the present,” the newspaper wrote. “It embodies a belief that diversity is a problem and uniformity is a virtue.” The piece then went on to contradict itself: “How can anyone imagine that erecting knockoffs of ancient buildings from other cultures would serve to demonstrate the dignity, enterprise and vigor of our republic?”
The White House
Classical architecture does not have a monopoly on those values, of course. But sometimes modern designs fall short of properly conveying them in the nation’s public buildings. Take the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, D.C., for example.
The FBI’s current headquarters is a brutalist fortress that looms over Pennsylvania Avenue roughly midway between the Capitol and the White House, two neoclassical icons. The drab concrete building radiates unease and distrust—a hallmark of the brooding, authoritarian style of “security architecture.”
American Institute of Architects Response to Classical Mandate
“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.”
Longworth House Office Building
US Courthouse, Islip, NY
Rotunda, University of Virginia, Designed by Thomas Jefferson
The American Institute of Architects called on members to sign an open letter to the Trump Administration in response to its plans to introduce an order that all federal buildings should be built in the “classical architectural style”.
“It’s unarguable that this classical style is part of the national identity and design language of the USA for better or worse. I don’t see the value in eroding national coherence and image by pursuing alternatives, particularly in such divided times. No-one will die because Studio BIG doesn’t win the next contract for a courthouse.”
“Finally getting architecture where it should be again.”
The mechanism for the radical upending of these principles, in order to promote classical and traditional regional architecture (Spanish colonial style, for example, would be permitted in places like Florida), would be a President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture. Its members would include the Commissioner of the GSA’s Public Building Service and at least one member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, designated by the President. That commission, which approves architecture and design in much of the nation’s capital, is composed of seven experts, appointed by the President to four-year terms.
President Trump’s first appointment, in November 2018, was Justin Shubow, the president of the National Civic Art Society, which is devoted to furthering classical architecture. Its website contends that “contemporary architecture is by and large a failure,” and states the organization’s mission is “to help architecture return to its pre-Modernist roots.” Much of the language in the draft document echoes the website for Shubow’s organization; it also draws heavily from an article that appeared in City Journal last summer, “Why America Needs Classical Architecture,” by Catesby Leigh. Leigh is listed as the 2018-2019 research fellow of the National Civic Art Society.
I will follow up on this topic.
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