The Republican Party used to oppose federal government intrusion into local affairs, but the Trump administration seems about to turn that tradition on its head with a draft executive order titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”
The executive order would make “the classical architectural style … the preferred and default style” for all new and upgraded federal buildings. In the draft, obtained by the professional journal Architectural Record, the U.S. General Services Administration’s Design Excellence Program comes under the most criticism for failing to infuse “our national values into Federal buildings,” coinciding with the resignation in late January of the program’s director and GSA’s chief architect, David Insinga.
To many people, this matter may not sound significant. After all, who doesn’t like classical buildings? The American Institute of Architects, in a statement last week in response to the draft, acknowledged that “[a]rchitects are committed to honoring our past,” including such the classical buildings as the U.S. Capitol and the White House itself. But the AIA statement goes on to say, in no uncertain terms, that it “strongly opposes uniform style mandates for federal architecture. Architecture should be designed for the specific communities that it serves, reflecting our nation’s diverse places, thought, culture, and climate … [while] protecting the freedom of thought and expression that are essential to democracy.”
The Trump administration’s executive order would overturn a directive that the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a member of the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations) drafted in 1962 titled “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.” That document has governed the design of federal buildings ever since, stating that the “development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.” Quoting President John Kennedy, who in turn quoted Pericles, one of the great leaders of ancient Athens, the 1962 Guiding Principles also say that “We do not imitate — for we are a model to others.” That suggests that what is classical about America is not an architectural style, but a self-confidence that relieves us of having to imitate the past.
Self-confidence can also become overconfidence, evident in whom the Trump administration has put in positions of authority when it comes to federal buildings. President Donald Trump just appointed an ocean and aeronautical engineer, J. Brett Blanton, to be the next Architect of the Capitol, a post for which his education seems especially ill-suited. Is the Trump administration admitting, with this appointment, that the U.S. Capitol may someday flood because of climate change? And Trump’s first appointment to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which oversees the design of federal buildings in Washington, was Justin Shubow, a lawyer and the president of the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit organization whose purpose is to “guide government agencies and officials” in “advancing the classical tradition in architecture.” One wonders what Mr. Shubow and his fellow attorneys might say if Trump appointed architects to oversee the classical tradition in law?
The worrisome aspect of this proposed executive order is the Trump administration’s interest in mandating a national style, regardless of its appropriateness. Recent award-winning federal buildings by the local architectural firms of Snow Kreilich and HGA have been land port-of-entry facilities on our border with Canada, through which large numbers of cars and trucks pass every day. It would be silly to make such buildings classical. Would every vehicle have to pass through its own little temple front, with vehicle inspectors sitting on their own little thrones? And I wonder what the Pentagon must think of this executive order, given the number of military facilities it builds? A classical missile-launch pad?
The history of such architectural mandates should also give us pause. From 1933 to his death in 1953, Josef Stalin expected all USSR buildings be designed in “Socialist Classicism,” leading to the so-called “Stalin high-rises” in Moscow, with their pinnacles and spires making multistory buildings look like giant wedding cakes. Given President Donald Trump’s opposition to “socialists,” does he really want to be associated with Stalin? Or does the Trump administration know about the other great political fan of classical architecture in the 20th century: Adolf Hitler? Hitler mandated “Nazi Classicism” for all Third Reich buildings from 1933 until his defeat in 1945, culminating in his grand plan for Berlin, with its massive Pantheon-like “Volkshalle” rising 950 feet in the air. Whether on the political left or right, dictators seem to have the same architectural tastes.
Maybe in anticipation of that unwholesome association, the Trump administration’s draft executive order tries to connect its classical mandate to the architecture of “democratic Athens” and “republican Rome” as emblematic of our nation’s “self-governing ideals.” But even here, the implications are not very encouraging. In a recent essay in The Conversation, Timothy Joseph, a classics professor at the College of the Holy Cross, draws eerie parallels between the U.S. Senate’s recent capitulation to the wishes of the White House and “Rome’s decline into one-man rule” when its senate capitulated to the first Roman emperor, Augustus. “The Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic,” wrote Joseph, “shows how easily that transformation can occur.” Classical architecture helped maintain the masquerade in ancient Rome, and do we want it to happen again here?
Speaking of masquerades, why should the draft executive order only focus on architecture? What about the other design disciplines? Why not mandate that all federal workers wear the apparel of our classical past: powdered wigs, frock coats and breeches with silk stockings, or maybe togas, tunics and clogs to more accurately reflect our classical Athenian and Roman heritage? Such are the absurdities of our government mandating a classical style, be it in architecture or apparel, and the Trump administration would be wise to send this draft executive order to the dustbin of history.
Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture and the director of the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.