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Making federal buildings beautiful again

Here is an interesting topic for debate.

This week the NY Times reported that a non-profit group called the National Civic Art Society has drafted an executive order that would make classical architecture the default style for all federal buildings in the United States. The draft order is naturally titled: “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”

Here is an excerpt from the New York Times:

“For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings,” Marion Smith, the group’s chairman, wrote in a text message. “This executive order gives voice to the 99 percent — the ordinary American people who do not like what our government has been building.”

As you can imagine, this proposed order isn’t sitting well with many architects (the real kind who, presumably, hold licenses). Thom Mayne of Morphosis put it well with this quote:

“We are a society that is linked to openness of thought, to looking forward with optimism and confidence at a world that is always in the process of becoming. Architecture’s obligation is to maintain this forward thinking stance.”

I think there are many people who would tell you that they prefer classical architecture to modern architecture. And that’s totally fine. I don’t know how many is many, but I am fairly certain it is not 99% of all Americans. (It would be interesting to know the approximate taste split.)

My strong view is that I don’t see the need to mandate a particular architectural style. Let architecture respond to the world around us. Let urban context guide. Like Mayne, I am also drawn to the future, as opposed to the past — though I certainly appreciate history.

What is your view?

As a side note, classical architecture was used pretty much exclusively for federal buildings up until the 1930s. Architecture school taught me that it was initially chosen because it was seen to embody the ideals of the American democracy.

Photo by Caleb Perez on Unsplash

8 Comments

  1. Doug Pollard

    well both as an architect and as a normal citizen who cannot abide the idea that a government would dictate limitations on any style or expression of thought I am naturally drawn to your point of view even though there are many contemporary buildings which make me shudder. This has of course raised all sorts of outcry from the AIA.. What a wonderful diversion he has been handed, we can now debate this long and hard while he quietly goes on ruining social and environmental programs unnoticed

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  2. Lisa Welch

    The isn’t about style, but about tradition, correct? That our buildings should look and act like buildings and not… blobs of modern materials. They should be pleasant places for people, should age well, and be designed for the climate. I think those are worthy goals.

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  3. Ron Richards

    Now Federal architecture is being directed to bring back the good old days of white Amurica. MAGA!

    Pathetic for a once great nation.

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  4. Scott Baker

    This is actually a big deal, and more than most people realize.
    The Nazis tried to impose architectural order too. Remember Albert Spears? He was Hitler’s architect.
    And before one dismisses this as a coincidence, notice the similarity of style dictated. From Wikipedia:
    “Nazi architecture is the architecture promoted by the Third Reich from 1933 until its fall in 1945. It is characterized by three forms: a stripped neoclassicism (typified by the designs of Albert Speer); a vernacular style that drew inspiration from traditional rural architecture, especially alpine; and a utilitarian style followed for major infrastructure projects and industrial or military complexes. Nazi ideology took a pluralist attitude to architecture; however, Adolf Hitler himself believed that form follows function and wrote against “stupid imitations of the past”.[1]

    While similar to Classicism, the official Nazi style is distinguished by the impression it leaves on viewers. Architectural style was used by the Nazis to deliver and enforce their ideology. Formal elements like flat roofs, horizontal extension, uniformity, and the lack of decor created “an impression of simplicity, uniformity, monumentality, solidity and eternity,” which is how the Nazi Party wanted to appear.[2]
    The construction of new buildings served other purposes beyond reaffirming Nazi ideology.”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazi_architecture

    Fascism, anyone?

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    • Ron Richards

      Authoritarianism if not outright fascism. Fromm sets it out clearly in Escape From Freedom written during the rise of Hitler. Our freedoms are under attack and it is largely being promulgated by Putin’s Russia. This is a coordinated attack that needs a coordinated response at the state level. Unfortunately, as in America, the political will of the people in democracies worldwide may already be lost, perhaps even here in Canada although that remains to be seen.

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