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Keep It Classical, Says Trump Order On Federal Architecture

The Federal Building and Courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Timothy Hursley
The Federal Building and Courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

President Trump, a former builder, signed an executive order Monday intended to promote neo-classical architecture as the official style for federal buildings in Washington, DC., and at new federal courthouses elsewhere.

The order defines "classical" as including Neoclassical, Georgian, Greek Revival, Gothic and other traditional styles.It also establishes a new President's Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture, which is intended to ensure proposed federal buildings are "beautiful and reflective of the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American system of self-government."

The order cites ancient Greece, ancient Rome and language from the constitution of the Italian city of Siena in 1309 as preferred models.

"President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson consciously modeled the most important buildings in Washington, D.C., on the classical architecture of ancient Athens and Rome," the order says. "They sought to use classical architecture to visually connect our contemporary Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity, reminding citizens not only of their rights but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions."

The council will include the Commissioner of the GSA Public Building Service, the Secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts, the Architect of the Capitol and other officials as well as up to twenty people to be selected by the president.

Back in February, President Trump set the architectural world reeling with his initial call for traditional designs for new federal buildings. He proposed an executive order, called "Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again," which took an out-with-the-new, in-with-the-old approach to architecture, calling modern federal buildings constructed over the last five decades "undistinguished," "uninspiring" and "just plain ugly."

Retitled "Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture," the new executive order begins with a paean to "beautiful public architecture," before moving on to a litany of disapproval aimed at modernist federal buildings.

It's true that modernism abounds in D.C. From the gleaming white pillars of the U.S. Capitol dome, the kind of classical architecture the president's order favors, to the towering, steel-mesh scrim that's part of the contemporary Eisenhower Memorial designed by Frank Gehry and the beige, boxy, concrete-heavy Department of Education, a Brutalist building — the style a lot of people love to hate.

Marion Smith of the National Civic Art Society is one of them. He looks at this entire vista with disgust. "From where I'm standing, I see modernist structures, and the only hint of a classical building I can see is the top of the U.S. dome," he told NPR in February. "That is not what our founders had in mind. This is a new reigning orthodoxy of modernist, Brutalist postmodern design." (Brutalism was a popular movement with architects beginning in the 1950s.) The Society led a six-year campaign against Frank Gehry's Eisenhower memorial, which forced the architect to make some changes to his original design.

The organization has been the driving force behind the President's Executive Order. NCAS president Justin Shubow issued a statement today in praise of the final order. "Since the mid-20th century, Modernist mandarins controlling government architecture have been forcing ugly designs upon us," he wrote. "President Trump stood firm for tradition and beauty in public architecture, and for the heartfelt desires of the American people."

Others feel differently. "We are absolutely opposed to this order," said Robert Ivy in February. He's the head of the American Institute of Architects, and he says the order doesn't account for today's office buildings, which need to be efficient and equipped for both technology and security. "In the 21st century, we're very different people from the people who popularized Greek Revival architecture in the 19th century, as beautiful as it was," he says. "To try to force-fit new systems in old forms is, in of itself difficult to do, inefficient, and is not who we are today."

Tastes change over time, and Brutalism is extremely trendy among architects today, points out Blake Gopnik, a former art critic for the Washington Post. "I actually think it's kind of a wonderful executive order, because it says a building has to be beautiful," Gopnik marvels. "It means virtually nothing."

The newly created federal council will serve until Sept. 30, 2021, and is expected to submit its report by then, but it's unclear how — or whether — the incoming Biden administration will act on those recommendations.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.