Why Trump’s ‘Beautiful’ Federal Building Order May Be Here to Stay

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President Donald Trump took some time out before the holidays for aesthetic policy-making. On Dec. 21, the president signed an executive ordersetting a new standard for federal architecture. Civic buildings, the order reads,should be “beautiful.” The order itself doesn’t define this term in any concrete way, but it does provide several examples of buildings — all modernist — that missed the mark. Specially gift-wrapped for fans of neoclassical buildings, who have hoped for executive action sincedetails of the order first bubbled up in February, the directive promotes traditional design as the gold standard for U.S. architecture.

The White House order ignited many debates on social media betweenchampions of modernism andmarble-minded classicists, camps who find themselves (somewhat artificially) at odds over the issue. Like so many executive orders from this White House, it’s largely an exercise in political symbolism undertaken to stoke culture-war embers; President-elect Joe Biden can easily revoke the order after he takes office on Jan. 20 (though he has far more pressing issues on his plate). No matter how long it stands, though, the Trump order could still have a lasting impact, because the White House has also taken action to determine who gets to decide what federal buildings look like going forward: The substance of Trump’s decisions on style revolves around people, process and power.

On Dec. 22, the day after the executive order, the president named four new appointees to the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts, the independent federal agency that oversees design and aesthetic decisions in the nation’s capital. All four of the new commissioners — architectRodney Mims Cook, sculptorChas Fagan, landscape architectPerry Guillot and architectSteven W. Spandle — are deeply steeped in yesteryear’s European art forms. The latter two recently executed projects for First Lady Melania Trump: Guillot designed thecontroversial Rose Garden revamp while Spandle handled thesimilarly controversial Tennis Pavilion.

Taken together with the three current commissioners, who were also appointed by Trump, all seven members of the Commission on Fine Arts are now white men — a departure for a commission that, in 2019, included three women and two African Americans. Like their predecessors, they will all serve four-year terms, with the first replacement up in 2022. Trump’s fully staffed commission is the first to include only men since 1963 and the first all-white one in a decade. 

“The buildings we create and the spaces we create will stand to represent who we are as a society today for future generations to have a better understanding of who we were,” says R. Steven Louis, former president of the National Organization of Minority Architects. “If Black architects are not included in offering some of that work, then we could, as has been the case in the past, be written out of history, and there would be no account of our lens through which we see the society and the world.”

Members of the Commission on Fine Arts serve as stewards of the capital and its monumental core. Trump appointed another classical architect, Gibson Worsham, to the National Capital Planning Commission, a separate Washington, D.C., oversight body. The White House executive order requires all new federal buildings in Washington to be specifically classical, so this team of neoclassicists has a warrant to pursue their agenda after Trump himself departs. In D.C., they’ll have a large say in shaping (or dismantling) amodern-looking renovation of the Marriner S. Eccles Building, Paul Cret’s austere 1937 headquarters for the Federal Reserve Board. Frank Gehry’sdesign for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, which opened in September, could not have survived review with this bunch.

For the rest of the country, the standard is set at “beautiful,” a subjective ideal if ever there was one. However, these same seven commissioners will have a say in that as well, since they make up the core of the newly authorized Council on Improving Federal Architecture, giving the commission national reach.

Not that there’s any doubt about what “beautiful” means in practice. Even before February, when word first leaked about a potential presidential order on “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” the General Services Administration (GSA) had already attached a sticker to a solicitation for a new federal courthouse stating that architects must submit traditional designs only. Language in a different bid for a $125 million courthouse for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, wascopied verbatim from the order’s original draft.

Among other duties, the new Council on Improving Federal Architecture is tasked with notifying the White House if the GSA attempts to green-light any federal building that is Brutalist or Deconstructivist in design. (The red phone to the Oval Office is reserved exclusively for alerting the president about these two architectural styles.) The specificity of that charge suggests that the federal government has been filling small Midwest towns with scores of new Brutalist structures, in defiance of the will of local residents. That’s a misleading depiction of theGSA’s Design Excellence program, a 1994 initiative to expand the number and kind of architecture firms that participate in the procurement process.

“It’s a caricature of what architects do,” says Brian Goldstein, a former GSA program analyst and coordinator. “The executive order makes it sound like these Fountainhead-esque architects are showing up with their buildings, dropping them on city blocks and vanishing, making people suffer with their designs.”

Architects with experience working with the GSA say that Brutalism is a boogeyman: The civic architecture of the 1970s is notoriously unpopular, which can give an overstated impression of the prominence of this work in the federal portfolio. Critics say that the executive order misstates who makes design decisions and how. Local judges have a lot of say in the design of courthouses, for example. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer helped topick the architect for the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, a decidedly modernist project that enjoys pride of place on Boston’s waterfront.

Far from being unresponsive to local needs, the GSA’s Design Excellence paradigm produces projects that are tailored to individual communities, its supporters say. Casey Jones, who served as director of Design Excellence from 2009 to 2013, points to the Oklahoma City Federal Building, a highly sensitive project designed by Carol Ross Barney to replace the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which was destroyed in a white supremacist terrorist bombing in 1995. While Ross Barney had to incorporate bollards and other substantial security features, she did not create a bunker: Instead, the building features a grassy ellipse that passes through the project’s formidable security walls into a central courtyard, inviting pedestrians inside. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin praised the building’s marriage of“armor and aesthetics.”

“Do the people in Oklahoma City feel that the federal building that was designed for them in the aftermath of that incident doesn’t reflect who they are and what they went through?” Jones says. “That building was about healing that community. I don’t think a building with pediments and columns would have done that.”

Louis also brings up Barney’s project in OKC: “It’s abstract modernism, in a certain way, but it evokes curiosity. You want to know what’s behind those ideas and thoughts.”

The Design Excellence program is ultimately a peer-review process: Architects submit their work to panels of other architects for consideration and revision, not local design boards. Some of the ways that federal architecture is not responsive to local jurisdictions are statutory. Federal projects have strict security needs that inform the scope of a building’s program (especially after 9/11). Still, as a GSA staffer who led programs to improve the user experience of mid-century buildings and to align federal projects with local planning agency goals, Goldstein says he recalls hashing out nitty-gritty details with local leaders — such as a community meeting in Austin to figure out exactly where a project’s wall would meet the sidewalk.

One real consequence of the White House executive order: For as long as it lasts, it will open up federal procurement possibilities for conservative architects who might not win bids on their own merits otherwise. Trump’s policy could be a boon for the relatively small number of firms that specialize in classical design, since they may find themselves competing for commissions in places that don’t want classical designs and would not choose them on their own. (The White House executive order argues for giving local jurisdictions more say, while at the same time centralizing design authority.)

“It’s going to have an arresting effect on the number of firms that can pursue” federal projects, Jones says. “If the standard is having completed a body of traditional architecture, it’s an elite number of firms who can meet that standard.”

For architects who have struggled to make the design field and especially its work in the civic sphere more inclusive, the new federal order is disappointing. TheAmerican Institute of Architects issued a statement condemning the executive order, saying that it unfairly vilified the Design Excellence program. Louis, who received a Design Excellence award before joining the GSA in 2004, wrote a statement for theNational Organization of Minority Architects back in February saying that the White House order would “signal the perceived superiority of a Eurocentric aesthetic.”

Design institutions and practitioners are making strides tolift up the perspectives of architects of color. Moody Nolan, the nation’s largest Black-owned architecture firm, received theindustry’s highest honor this year. Paul Revere Williams, whowon the AIA’s Gold Medal posthumously in 2016, was the first Black architect to receive this recognition. The GSA’s Design Excellence program has played a limited role in diversifying the field, too. Huff + Gooden Architects — a small Black-owned firm selected forNew York City’s exclusive design procurement program in 2016 — got an early start for the GSA making mid-century federal buildings more hospitable.

And Ross Barney, who has made civic architecture her career, became the first woman to design a federal building with her Oklahoma City project in 2004. It’s not clear her design would make the cut in 2020.

“How can you design architecture that’s responsive to communities if you only have one set of parts that you’re designing with? If everything has to be in a classical language?” Jones says. “It’s not a black-and-white scenario. Architecture, like many things, is a spectrum.”

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