The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With most Trump appointees off the fine arts commission, Biden can put a progressive stamp on federal architecture

Washington on the morning after Election Day. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

By the time President Donald Trump left office in January, he had appointed all seven members of the Commission of Fine Arts, a federal design oversight body that has shaped the nation’s capital and federal architecture since 1910. All were White men, more or less devoted to what was termed “classical architecture.” The group had not been less diverse since 1963, the last time it was all male, and it had been at least a decade since all its members were White.

President Biden has taken the bold step this week of removing four of Trump's appointees, including the commission chairman, Justin Shubow, who is not a practicing architect or trained designer. Shubow was the driving force at the CFA during the Trump years, politicizing the traditionally nonpartisan group, and he was almost certainly the author or instigator of a 2020 executive order, "Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture," which required most federal buildings in the District and many throughout the country to be built in a limited range of traditionalist architectural styles.

Biden revoked that order in February and has now taken the further and necessary step of reforming the commission’s membership. On Tuesday, the administration announced four exemplary new members of the commission: architects Peter Cook and Billie Tsien, Howard University professor of architecture Hazel Ruth Edwards and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation program officer Justin Garrett Moore.

Commissioners usually serve four-year terms, and it is unprecedented in the 110-year history of the agency to ask for their resignations. Doing so risks further politicizing the body or making it part of the spoils system of federal appointments, which could impanel dilettantes and wealthy donors. But the CFA was in danger of losing its moral authority and its persuasive power to guide design, and there was no credible way forward without making its membership more diverse and more professionally substantial.

Depoliticizing a federal board through executive fiat is a political act and a stern kind of medicine, but if done right, it could yield a healthier institution. There is no question that the newly appointed members have the gravitas, professional accomplishment and temperament to help the CFA earn back the respect that was squandered during the Trump administration. It is now a diverse group, not just in terms of race, gender and ethnic background but also sensibilities.

It includes Cook, a respected practitioner committed to architecture as an essential form of community building; Edwards, the distinguished head of an essential university architecture department with deep experience with Washington design; Moore, the program officer leading the Mellon Foundation’s groundbreaking $250 million effort to rethink memorials, monuments and public space; and Tsien, co-founder of one this country’s most innovative, sensitive and intelligent architecture practices.

So now, along with people who understand classical architecture, the commission also includes people who understand contemporary architecture, green design, the connection between design and health, and the design implications of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which has helped make public spaces more accessible for decades.

Trump made the CFA all White, all male and mostly mediocre

For more than a century, the commission included some of the most famous and recognizable design names in the country, among them architects Daniel Burnham and Cass Gilbert, sculptor Daniel Chester French (whose giant statue of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined at the memorial to the 16th president) and the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. But most of what the CFA does is detail-oriented, and Biden has selected people who can do that often unglamorous but essential work. The new members aren’t just visionaries with a firm command of inspiring rhetoric; they know how to read a plan, look at a model, scrutinize a drawing and make precise comments about the small questions of design, materials, spacing, proportion and light.

Now that the CFA is free of its Trumpian legacy (three of the four departing members officially joined the board after the Jan. 6 insurrection that aimed to overturn a democratic election, according to the CFA website), the group is positioned to grow and expand its influence. Rather than simply assess the impact and design of selected federal projects, most of them in the District, the CFA could become a clearinghouse for progressive design thinking throughout the federal government.

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The past four years have been an unhappy time for the CFA. The Trump administration was largely too scattered and unfocused to have a catastrophic impact on design, but as often happens during authoritarian times, efficient ideologues made use of the chaos to promote their own cause. Classical architecture, which has a place and a purpose, is pervasive and was for centuries the reflexive design response for most architects. But it wasn’t well served by its Trump-appointed champions, some of whom were inspired by fantasies of a lost golden age of European-derived traditionalism, fantasies that make classicism repellent to those who might otherwise embrace it as one among many design options.

The lingering effects of this unfortunate chapter are likely to continue for some time. Shubow told The Washington Post, “Given that all of the threatened commissioners support classical architecture, the White House’s action clearly represents an attack on that type of design, even though it is approved by most Americans.” It is indeed approved by many Americans, but it is not under attack. That line of reasoning echoes basic themes of grievance that animated the rekindled culture wars stoked by Trump and his supporters.

Departing commissioner Perry Guillot has wished the incoming members his best and praised their credentials. In a brief conversation, Vice Chairman Rodney Mims Cook Jr. (who remains on the CFA and whose appointment also took effect on Jan. 12) said that he considered the CFA nonpartisan and sought only to serve the American people. That is a hopeful sign that the new members may find collegial common ground with the remaining ones.

The CFA meets monthly, and in ordinary times it works its way diligently through a hefty agenda of design projects. If the new members are ambitious, they could expand that basic practice to include advocacy, education and service to other, more locally focused design oversight groups. The CFA is already a repository of design wisdom and history, but it could share that wisdom much more broadly.

Bad design is pervasive throughout this country, and many localities lack the means to make smart design choices. Everywhere in America, we put buildings in the wrong places, build structures that make people sick and consume profligate amounts of natural resources and energy. We open public spaces that send messages of exclusion or hostility to communities that they should serve, and we devote unequal care, attention and money to places that primarily serve the privileged.

With its new members — and a larger budget and staff — the CFA could help implement equity in design throughout the federal government. The built world is ours to shape, and the CFA should play a larger role in shaping it on a national level for the better.

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