Donald Trump decreed on Monday that all new US federal buildings should be “beautiful”, in a long-expected executive order which excoriated architectural modernism but stopped short of demanding that all such projects should be in the classical style.
The Pulitzer prize-winning architectural critic Paul Goldberger said the order was “mostly symbolic” and “just a chance [for Trump] to lob another grenade on his way out the door”.
When a draft of the order first surfaced, in February, critics reacted with horror to its promise to “make federal buildings beautiful again” by mandating a return to “the classical architectural style”.
Both the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation objected, while Goldberger told the Guardian the problem was “not with classical architecture per se”, but that “the mandating of an official style is not fully compatible with 21st-century liberal democracy”.
Ten months later, and with the end of Trump’s time in office looming, the finished order arrived.
Its text extols examples of classical US public architecture including “the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, and the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York City”.
“In Washington DC,” it adds, “classical buildings such as the White House, the Capitol building, the supreme court, the Department of the Treasury and the Lincoln Memorial have become iconic symbols of our system of government.”
It also bemoans buildings put up from the 1950s onwards, “from the undistinguished to designs even [the General Services Administration] now admits many in the public found unappealing”.
“Encouraging classical and traditional architecture does not exclude using most other styles of architecture where appropriate,” the order says. “Care must be taken, however, to ensure that all federal building designs command respect of the general public for their beauty and visual embodiment of America’s ideals.”
Saying the GSA must seek public and staff input on designs, the order also establishes a “President’s Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture”, meant to police if not forbid outright any federal project “that diverges from the preferred architecture set forth in … this order, including brutalist or deconstructivist architecture or any design derived from or related to these types of architecture”.
Given his career in real estate developments marked by a love for gold, gilt, black marble and baroque excess, not to mention the brutal treatment of beloved old buildings, Trump’s professed love for classicism has attracted critical comment.
Some federal projects in neoclassical style have been initiated but the inauguration of Joe Biden on 20 January may spell the end of Trump’s attempt to impose “beautiful” buildings by order.
On Monday, Goldberger wrote on Twitter: “This is weakened from the original proposal and in any case is mostly symbolic, just a chance to lob another grenade on his way out the door. I don’t think it means too much. And unlike last-minute pardons, the next administration can mitigate its impact, or reverse it.”
Before the order was issued, a Democratic member of Congress, Dina Titus of Nevada, introduced legislation to stop the GSA blocking modernist designs.
“Imposing a preferred architectural style for federal facilities runs counter to our nation’s democratic traditions,” Titus said in a letter to the GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, reported by Bloomberg News.
“Attempting to implement this misguided mandate from Washington DC by circumventing Congress and gutting decades of GSA policy and practice without any public notice or hearing is even worse.”