Decrying the ‘Architectural Elite,’ Trump Signs an Executive Order Declaring That All Federal Buildings Should Be ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Classical’

The order singles out Thom Mayne of Morphosis architects, among others, for crimes against architecture.

The Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Photo Nicolas Raymond, via Flickr.

Ten months ago, a draft executive order leaked from the Trump administration, aiming to “make federal buildings beautiful again” by mandating they be in classical styles. Now, outgoing president Donald Trump has officially signed the order on “promoting beautiful federal civic architecture.”

All buildings costing over $50 million to design and build, the text says, should hew to classical designs and be “visibly identifiable as civic buildings.” Within the District of Columbia, “classical architecture shall be the preferred and default architecture for Federal public buildings absent exceptional factors necessitating another kind of architecture,” it says.

The draft order was loudly condemned by organizations such as the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the Washington Post, even by the classicism-loving dean of the University of Notre Dame’s architecture school weighed in.

United States Federal Building in San Francisco, California. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

United States Federal Building in San Francisco, California. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

The text singles out landmarks like the Federal Building designed by Thom Mayne in San Francisco, the US Courthouse in Salt Lake City by Thomas Phifer, and the George C. Young U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building Annex in Orlando, designed by Heery International, as modernist designs that have displeased the communities they serve. While Brutalist or “Deconstructivist” architecture may impress “the architectural elite,” says the order, federal buildings should instead impress the general public, whom it helpfully identifies as those who are not “artists, architects, engineers, art or architecture critics, instructors or professors of art or architecture, or members of the building industry.”

The American Institute of Architects released a statement on Monday, condemning the order and saying it would work with President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office in 30 days, to reverse it.

“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 the Institute’s EVP/Chief Executive Officer Robert Ivy, in the statement. “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.” The Institute’s members sent some 11,000 letters to the White House opposing the designation of classical architecture as the preferred style.

Yet as Bloomberg reported last month, some General Services Administration solicitations for federal building designs in the interim have included exactly the language from the February draft order, meaning that “[t]he GSA appears to have adopted a modernism ban, without any authorization in place.”

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