The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Trump shouldn’t be allowed to dictate how federal buildings are designed

The U.S. Supreme Court building, a classical Corinthian style, was completed in 1935. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

A little-known architectural design group is advocating new guidelines that could radically change the look and feel of federal buildings in the nation’s capital. The proposed executive order, circulating in draft form, mandates that new federal buildings, especially those in and around the District of Columbia, be built in “classical architectural style.”

The White House declined to comment on the document, which the New York Times reported has been spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, an educational nonprofit group that appears to be aligning its agenda with that of the Trump administration. The proposed guidelines have roiled architectural circles in Washington, drawn a rebuke from the American Institute of Architects (“The AIA strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture,” the group said) and introduced the NCAS to a much wider public than it has enjoyed in the past.

When the society was beginning to get attention about a decade ago, it often seemed to be a one- or two-man operation. Justin Shubow, one of the group’s leaders, would show up at public hearings and other events and inveigh angrily, if not always coherently, against modern and postmodern architecture. The Frank ­Gehry-designed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower, which opens in May, was a favorite target of his ire.

Now Shubow, who is not an architect or professional designer, has a presidentially appointed seat on the Commission of Fine Arts, the independent federal agency that oversees the design of the nation’s capital. And the National Civic Art Society, which has attracted a powerful and wealthy board, is proposing an enormous change not just to the design of federal buildings but also to an oversight process that has largely succeeded, for more than a century, in holding architects to a high level of professionalism when creating new structures in the capital. If adopted, the executive order would be the most significant attempt yet to insert the new politics of populism into the world of art, aesthetics and design.

Shubow, now the NCAS president, didn’t return messages seeking comment.

The executive order, first reported by Architectural Record, is a seven-page document — part ode to the beauty and dignity of the buildings created under the discriminating eye of the CFA more than a century ago, part tirade against more recent styles labeled “brutalism” and “deconstructivism.”

The White House declined to comment on the document.

Like the early rhetorical efforts of the NCAS, the proposed guidelines are full of holes and confusion, and the draft document, obtained by The Washington Post, doesn’t look terribly professional. It is printed on plain paper, includes colloquial phrases such as “just plain ugly” and offers broad and clumsy definitions of architectural styles. But there are details that read as though someone is attempting to get President Trump to endorse an order that would undo decades of professional design oversight.

It would, for example, be directed at all federal courthouses and agency headquarters, all federal buildings in the D.C. area, and all federal buildings expected to cost “more than $50 million,” while excluding infrastructure (postmodern highway bridges and pipelines are apparently okay) and “land ports of entry” (visitors and immigrants don’t deserve a “dignified” and inspiring doorway when they come to the United States).

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More troubling is the document’s creation of a new “President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture,” which would effectively override the independent CFA and might allow the White House to intervene in major architectural decisions. And it’s clear from the language of the proposed order that the president is the draft order’s target audience, from its title (“Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again”) to explicit language endorsing “Spanish colonial and other Mediterranean styles generally found in Florida,” thus including Trump’s privately owned Mar-a-Lago resort in the fold of acceptable “traditional” styles.

This is a document carefully tailored to a particular grievance-ridden form of populism. Another provision could effectively exclude any artists, architects, designers, critics or engineers “directly affected by the construction or remodeling” of federal buildings from participating in public panels about federal design projects. That is a breathtaking assault on freedom of expression, packaged as sop to members of the public who feel they aren’t regularly heard or given deference in public discourse. Most sane people who attend public architecture panels will roll their eyes at least occasionally at the pomposity or vaporous pretension of some panelist or other, but that is hardly grounds for blanket exclusion of professional opinion.

Today’s Trump-driven populism is turning out to be enormously expensive, and this executive order would only add to the tab. Although it has a few clauses allowing the General Services Administration — the federal government’s landlord, which would implement these changes — to consider the costs of implementing the guidelines, the executive order would create a situation in which costs would inevitably balloon. The guidelines would apply not only to new construction but also to remodeling and rebuilding projects. They could effectively limit the number of architects who would compete for federal projects, giving the government fewer options when it considers proposals.

And they would limit the flexibility of architects to find efficient solutions to basic problems. When news of the proposed order first leaked last week, it seemed like an Ozzie-and-Harriet document, a nostalgia-propelled diktat meant to make America look like every building was a bank or library built in 1920. But this isn’t the architectural equivalent of requiring federal workers to wear knee breeches and a tricorn hats. It is the architectural equivalent of making every federal contractor use a hammer and nails, exclusively; no other tools allowed. It is an attempt to mandate (with only a few exceptions) a single solution to all architectural problems.

Consider the range of those issues, especially today, when architects who design for the federal government must not only produce buildings with the requisite office space and other functions but also buildings that are secure from terrorist threats; buildings that create a healthy, livable environment for their users; buildings that are sensitive to their context and minimize the costs and other impacts of energy use. Retrofitting Washington to deal with terroristic threats has effectively subverted the symbolism of classical buildings like the U.S. Supreme Court, where visitors no longer use the main porticoed entrance — a symbol of openness, dignity and access — and must enter through the sides, where they can be screened.

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Energy-efficient buildings use an array of design elements that were never a part of the architectural vocabulary of Michelangelo and Palladio, two of the architects mentioned as representative of the preferred classical style. It isn’t clear that the public considers these green elements, including access to outdoor spaces and the incorporation of natural elements and materials, to be dehumanizing.

But this isn’t about giving the public what it wants. It’s about sending everyone to their default battle lines, making it seem as if there is no middle ground between liking traditional architecture and liking contemporary architecture. And that’s what makes the new document almost as risible as the old fulminating style of the National Civic Art Society partisans a decade ago. It is so old-fashioned.

Contemporary architecture is in a pretty good place right now, with old ideological arguments about classicism, modernism and postmodernism mostly dead issues. The focus among professional architects is the creation of effective buildings, buildings that don’t solve every problem with hammer and nails, buildings that finesse elegant solutions to a growing list of architectural needs and necessities. Reading this proposed order will give anyone who grew up in the supercharged academic climate of the 1980s or ’90s a little PTSD — it’s that over-the-top angry about issues most people simply don’t argue about anymore.

But we’ve learned the hard way that we can’t expect things that are patently ridiculous to go away of their own accord. We’ve seen how people with thin résumés and overweening ambition can insert themselves into institutional chaos and prevail by turning up the volume until all the quiet, sober, serious professionals leave in disgust. We’ve seen how people who would not ordinarily disagree can be brought to rancorous conflict simply by resurrecting old grievances, irrelevant but not forgotten.

Does anyone really think that Washington would be a more beautiful city if the National Gallery’s East Wing (designed by I.M. Pei) had never been built? Does anyone think the hangar-size National Air and Space Museum would look better with giant Corinthian columns plastered on the front? Whether these buildings would be affected, does anyone really want to pay an unknown but probably ruinous extra cost to retrofit federal buildings to look as though they were designed in 1750?

Dress it up in language about making American beautiful again, and you will find some takers. Unfortunately, it may only take one man to make this change, and this document is tailored to him.

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