Even though I have devoted my career to teaching generations of students the importance and relevance of classical architecture, I read with great dismay a Feb. 4 Architectural Record report about a potential presidential executive order declaring that “the classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for all new or refurbished federal buildings. The draft of the order, entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” cites the architectural models of “democratic Athens” and “republican Rome” that inspired the nation’s founders, the report said.
As our students can attest, classical architecture is not a style; it is a dedication to principles of community, resilience and beauty. This idea of the classical was first articulated in the 15th century by Leon Battista Alberti, a key figure in the Italian Renaissance. Buildings are not meant to be mere objects, he said, but should contribute to the fabric of the city, promoting a healthy and nurturing community.
A proposal such as “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” potentially reduces an entire architectural philosophy to a caricature. Arbitrarily pasting columns and arches on a building so it looks like a Parthenon-Colosseum hybrid is pretentious — and doesn’t make the building classical. Designing classical buildings for the modern age is a complex process, requiring knowledge of construction, world architectural history and urbanism, as well as aesthetic judgment.
Despite the challenge, there are architects successfully building classical projects around the world, and the breadth of the design is stunning. One example is David M. Schwarz Architects’ American Airlines Center in Dallas — an enormous sports facility that manages to reflect the neighborhoods surrounding it, welcoming rather than overwhelming visitors.
Another outstanding example is Westermoskee in Amsterdam, a large-scale public housing project, centered around a mosque, that was designed by the Paris-based architects Marc and Nada Breitman. Westermoskee reflects both the immigrant community it serves as well as the historic neighborhood in which it sits. Classical buildings are good neighbors — they contribute to their environments rather than distracting from it.
As the original masters of classical architecture knew, successful buildings must take into account the importance of street life and be scaled for humans, informed by the wishes of local residents.
At first glance the Alto Lee Adams Sr. U.S. Courthouse in Fort Pierce, Fla., designed by Merrill, Pastor & Colgan Architects, may not read as a classical building — there is not a column in sight — but it is a superb example of the form. It references vernacular and classical traditions, pulling from a variety of architectural periods and locations, a true accumulation of the wisdom of the past, perfectly suited to its modern setting. It allows pedestrians to engage the building while providing a sense of the monumental.
Beauty is important, and architecture is both an art and, in the case of federal buildings, a service to the public. Yes, many government buildings are unappealing to the eye, bland at best and sometimes outright hostile to those who work in them or use their services. But the solution isn’t the imposition of a uniform style by the executive branch. Architecture does not belong to one political faction or another — it transcends them all.
As Winston Churchill said, regarding the rebuilding of the House of Commons after it was bombed in World War II, “we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” There is a place for a conversation about what people want and need from public buildings. Federal buildings are a physical manifestation of the nation’s ideals and aspirations. Built correctly, they should last for hundreds of years, inspiring future generations by bearing witness to the timeless values of justice, equality, beauty and the common good.
In 1962, Daniel Patrick Moynihan — a Labor Department assistant and future senator — produced the first set of formal recommendations for the General Services Administration in what became known as the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture. Moynihan was very clear in his belief that “the development of an official style must be avoided.” He no doubt recognized that democracy is a messy enterprise, and if we short-circuit the public conversation about the most symbolic expression of the nation’s founding principles — our federal buildings — we will have faltered in our quest to form a more perfect union.