Joe Biden Has Revoked Trump’s Executive Order Mandating Classical-Only Architecture for Federal Buildings, Restoring ‘Freedom of Design’

The "Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again" order is no more.

UNITED STATES - MAY 11: New and old federal buildings in San Francisco, California: the Thom Mayne-designed Federal Building (L) and James R. Browning U.S. Court of Appeals Building (R). Photo: Carol M. Highsmith via Getty Images.

Trump’s order to “make federal buildings beautiful again”—a move that many believed echoed mandates by fascist leaders of the 20th century—is no more, thanks to President Biden. 

This week, Biden overturned Trump’s “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” executive order, which the former president signed into law last December during a spate of last-minute, lame duck moves. Biden’s new mandate calls for the director of the office of management and budget to “rescind any orders, rules, regulations, guidelines, or policies” enabled by Trump, according to NPR

It also orders the dissolution of “personnel positions, committees, task forces, or other entities established” created to carry out the now-nullified executive order, which likely means that the Trump’s Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture will also be disbanded. 

Trump’s order, a draft of which leaked last February, mandated that all new buildings costing over $50 million must adhere to the style of Greco-Roman-inspired classical architecture and be “visibly identifiable as civic buildings.” 

America’s landmark buildings should “inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, command respect from the general public,” the order stated. It went on to call modern buildings—such as San Francisco’s Thom Mayne-designed Federal Building and Orlando’s George C. Young US Courthouse—as “uninspiring” and “just plain ugly.”

Newfangled architecture of the latter type, the order stated, “sometimes impresses the architectural elite, but not the American people who the buildings are meant to serve.”

“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 Peter Exley, president of American Institute of Architects, in a statement. “This is fundamental to an architect’s process and to achieving the highest quality buildings possible.”

Exley’s organization has been vocal in its opposition to Trump’s order since it was introduced. Last year, after the draft leaked, the institute sent more than 11,400 letters to the White House decrying the mandate, while its leaders sent two separate missives to Trump directly. Other organizations, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, condemned the order too, and critics online were quick to point out similar mandates by fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler, who favored classical aesthetics.

But, of course, not everyone felt that way. “Since the mid-20th century, Modernist mandarins controlling government architecture have been forcing ugly designs upon us,” said Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, in a statement in December. “President Trump stood firm for tradition and beauty in public architecture, and for the heartfelt desires of the American people.”

In 2018, Trump elected Shubow to the US Commission of Fine Arts, an independent federal body tasked with advising the president, congress, and other lawmakers “on matters of design and aesthetics,” which was thought to have strongly influenced the executive order.

This week, Shubow told NPR that his organization intends “to work with the Biden administration to implement change that will build a truly democratic architecture.”

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics