The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Trump’s proposed rule for the design of federal buildings is alarming

The Old Executive Office Building/Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
The Old Executive Office Building/Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. (Susan Biddle/The Washington Post)
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THE PRINCIPLES that guide the design of federal buildings, written by future-senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was serving in President John F. Kennedy’s administration, mandate architecture that gives visual testimony to “the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American government.” Moynihan emphasized that “an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa.” Moynihan knew that America’s buildings needed to be a reflection of their time and the nation’s great diversity.

These worthy principles are now under threat from an administration that traffics in false nostalgia and a monochromatic vision of America.

The Trump administration is reportedly considering an executive order that would overhaul the guidelines written in 1962, to discourage modern design and ensure that classical architectural style, inspired by Greek and Roman construction, “be the preferred and default style” for federal buildings in Washington and many other cities. The draft executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” (yes, that is really the title), would create a president-appointed committee to review designs, opening the door to White House interference. The draft order, first obtained by Architectural Record, would apply to office buildings and courthouses contracted through the General Services Administration that cost over $50 million. Smithsonian museums would not be included.

The order, according to the New York Times, is the work of the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that considers modern architecture an abject failure. Its president is President Trump’s first appointee to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. No doubt there are people who find contemporary architecture “ugly, strange and off-putting” — to use the civic art society’s words — but that’s not the point.

Architecture is often a matter of taste. Consider for example that the Old Executive Office Building was called “the ugliest building in America” by novelist Mark Twain and a “monstrosity” by President Harry S. Truman. The since-renamed Dwight D. Eisenhower Executive Office Building, an example of French Second Empire style, is now a National Historic Landmark and considered by many to be a gem of Washington. To be sure, there have been some federal buildings about which there may be some regrets — the brutalist-influenced FBI headquarters comes to mind — but top-down, government-directed requirements are not the answer, something you would think an administration that supposedly champions individualism and minimal regulation would know.

Architecture is also — always — a matter of purpose and function; handcuffing architects to a specific style impedes their ability to design efficient solutions to problems. As The Post’s Philip Kennicott wrote, many challenges today — such as protection from terrorist attacks or desire for green buildings — were not a concern in previous centuries.

The proposal evokes the central planning of dictators who use architectural identity to advance their grandiose political vision. That’s the last thing America needs.

Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Why Trump is right to set aesthetic criteria for federal buildings

Michael Lykoudis: I teach architecture. Trump’s plan for federal buildings is a bad idea.

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

Ned Cramer: The cities of the future used to feature flying cars. A warming world demands new dreams.

Letters to the Editor: In praise of D.C.’s new architecture

Letters to the Editor: The architectural term ‘brutalism’ didn’t come from ‘brutal.’ Here’s its origin.