David and Art - "Federal Architecture"

Feb 24, 2020

In what way could the architecture of government buildings say anything about the government itself?

Last week, I mentioned former President Theodore Roosevelt’s harsh disapproval of some contemporary art in a 1913 New York exhibit.  He was critical of paintings that he felt didn’t meet his standard of what art ought to look like, and was particularly dismissive of European Modernists.  You will have noticed perhaps that the current President is likewise outspoken in his cultural opinions. (read more)

Earlier this month, the publication Architectural Record explained that in the middle of the impeachment drama, the White House was drafting a new executive order to regulate the architecture of government buildings.  Entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” it orders that classical Greek and Roman architecture now be the preferred and default style for new buildings, as well as those being remodeled.  It holds that newer, more creative styles are an outrage.  It calls out new federal buildings in San Francisco, Miami, and Austin (all of which were designed and built between 2007 and 2012) as being affronts to the good taste of everyday Americans.

Back in 1962, a official in the Kennedy administration named Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that despite there being guiding principles for federal architecture, “an official style must be avoided.”  “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government,” he said, “and not vice-versa.” 

As a mechanism for ensuring that the classical design now becomes the standard, this executive order creates something called the “President’s Committee for the Re-Beautification of Federal Architecture.” 

New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman characterizes this as a “war on architectural diversity.”  He points out that for decades the United States has exercised its “soft power” in the world by building its embassies and other government buildings with an architectural non-conformity that conveys a subtle but powerful message of optimism, innovation, and freedom.”  They demonstrated the range of human inspiration and creativity, instead of any political authoritarianism. 

Professional organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Society of Architectural Historians, and the American Institute of Architects have all come out unequivocally against the proposed executive order. 

I’ve commented publicly before about the pleasure of architectural diversity and the utter drabness of towns and cities wherever it is absent.  Surveying this order within the landscape of today’s politics one is left with the suspicion that among other things, this is just another rather transparent way to divide the American population into “us” and “them” without any real serious regard for the health of art and architecture.  Which is to say that once again, politicians are using the arts to exacerbate differences rather than to underscore our common humanity.