Chances are that despite efforts to curb the growth of government bureaucracy, we will see as many new federal buildings in the next decade as we saw in the last one.
Chances are also that we will like them better.
If public buildings give form to public values, our values are nothing to be proud of. As social critic Richard Sennett observed, people have come to think of the public domain as meaningless. Present-day American society reminds Sennett of the crisis of Roman society after the death of Augustus.
Federal architecture is caught in a vicious circle: As American government loses prestige among the governed, it also loses the will to command admiration with its buildings and other symbols.The resulting cheap, shoddy and commerciallooking buildings and symbols further lower its prestige.
Earlier in the history of this republic, public service was considered the noble duty of noble minds who believed that federal buildings represent the federal presence more substantially even than the flag. Their architectural design was the subject of informed and heated debate in the president's cabinet and both houses of Congress.
Novle minds would differ whether federal architecture ought to be inspired by the columns and pediments of antiquity or the spires and arches of the Gothic style. But they would agree with Jefferson that the formation of American taste demanded that public buildings be "models of study and imitation."
Until, at the turn of the century, the country's accelerating growth and progress, produced by the industrial revolution and its assembly lines and automation, turned our democracy increasingly into a bureaucracy, the best architects of their time were employes of the federal government.
Benjamin Latrobe, who first ventured "an American architecture" by replacing the eucalyptus leaf of his Corinthian columns with tobacco plants and Indian corn, was our first "Surveyor of Public Buildings."
Robert Mills, who designed the Washington Monument, the old Treasury Building, the Patent Office and customhouses and marine hospitals in many American cities, held the title "Architect of Public Buildings."
Most later federal buildings were designed in the "Office of the Supervising Architect" of the Treasury Department, which, of course, paid for them.
The foremost Supervising Architect was Alfred B. Mullet, the designer of the State, War, and Mavy Building (now Executive Office Building) and an astounding number of similarly grand edifices outside Washington.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built much of the stage set for the American drama, also gave us an architectural genius -- Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs. His Pension Building with an inner court fit for the president's inaugural ball, is now slated to become a National Museum of the Building Arts.
Not all government architects were geniuses. Many were nediocre and some were corrupt. There probably will always be scandal and graft where vast amounts of money are spent.
But when, 50 years ago, we started to hand public architecture to private architects, we may have bolstered the spirit of free enterprise, but hardly improved the public image.
With notable exceptions, (such as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, or Dulles Airport terminal) the federal buildings designed by haphazardly selected private architects cannot hold a candle to the work of such government architects as Latrobe, Mills, Mullet or Meigs.
But the main difference between 19th-and 20th-century public architecture is a difference in spirit. Like 20th-century government, 20th-century government building became increasingly anonymous and bureaucratic, if not oppressively overbearing like the FBI Building.
My faith tha public building will become more humane, dignified and creative in the future is based on the equally foolish faity that architecture in general will become more h., d. and c.
There is also the faith that, under the pressure of public opinion, the federal government is beginning to see the errors of its ways.The Federal A*chitecture Project of the National Endowment for the ARTS, WHICH IS AFTER ALL A FEDERAL AGENCY, HAS WORKED HARD AND INTELLIGENTLY TO RE-EDUCATE THE PUBLIC BUILDING BUREAUCRACY. It tries to raise sights and define needs.
One tangible result is a monumental new publication -- "The Federal Presence: Architecture, Politics, and Symbols in United States Government Building" -- by Lois Craig and the Federal Architecture Project staff (MIT Press, $37.50).
With over 900 photographs, many quotations from historic sources, and a most readable text, this book puts the knotty problem of federal design into clear, historic perspective. That should do more to put us back on the track than bureaucratic guidelines and directives.
The Art Endowment's efforts to improve federal architecture, like previous such efforts led by now Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan during the Kennedy administration, was sullenly ignored by the Public Building Service of General Services Administration.
But now we have a GSA administrator, Jay Solomon, who is enthusiastically devoted to good art and good architecture. Solomon believes that integrity and quality in government and government building can do much to restore integrity and quality in American life.
That should help.