The American people – and their politicians – don’t agree on many things. But it seems like a home run for a president to issue an executive order requiring all new federal buildings to be built with architecture that is, “beautiful,” right? Wrong. Outgoing President Donald Trump has issued a new executive order saying just that – and it’s encountering a lot of resistance.
What the EO Says
The new executive order, issued by Trump outlines the standards by which federal building architecture should be measured. An earlier draft of the EO received push-back due to concerns that it would promote a Eurocentric vision of an America that represents people from around the world. In order to avoid stepping on the toes of diversity, the new draft of the EO changed some language around. The EO reads in part, “Societies have long recognized the importance of beautiful public architecture. Ancient Greek and Roman public buildings were designed to be sturdy and useful, and also to beautify public spaces and inspire civic pride. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, public architecture continued to serve these purposes.
The 1309 constitution of the City of Siena required that “[w]hoever rules the City must have the beauty of the City as his foremost preoccupation . . . because it must provide pride, honor, wealth, and growth to the Sienese citizens, as well as pleasure and happiness to visitors from abroad.” Three centuries later, the great British Architect Sir Christopher Wren declared that “public buildings [are] the ornament of a country. [Architecture] establishes a Nation, draws people and commerce, makes the people love their native country . . . Architecture aims at eternity.”
Notable Founding Fathers agreed with these assessments and attached great importance to Federal civic architecture. They wanted America’s public buildings to inspire the American people and encourage civic virtue. President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson consciously modeled the most important buildings in Washington, D.C., on the classical architecture of ancient Athens and Rome.
They sought to use classical architecture to visually connect our contemporary Republic with the antecedents of democracy in classical antiquity, reminding citizens not only of their rights but also their responsibilities in maintaining and perpetuating its institutions.”
The text goes on to describe how former presidents were involved in the planning and approval of architecture for federal buildings. It also lists several examples of buildings considered, “beautiful,” as examples to be imitated. The order also lists a few examples of federal buildings considered, “not beautiful,” mostly built in the style of deconstructivism and modern movements that were contemporary when designed.
The order continues, “It is time to update the policies guiding Federal architecture to address these problems and ensure that architects designing Federal buildings serve their clients, the American people. New Federal building designs should, like America’s beloved landmark buildings, uplift and beautify public spaces, inspire the human spirit, ennoble the United States, command respect from the general public, and, as appropriate, respect the architectural heritage of a region. They should also be visibly identifiable as civic buildings and should be selected with input from the local community.”
In the policy section, the EO specifies that buildings should be, “beautiful,” and that public input should be garnered before designs are approved. While this all seems fairly reasonable, there’s a dark undertone that has critics concerned.
Why is the Executive Order Controversial?
When the EO was first drafted, it met staunch resistance from the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. When it first became public knowledge that Trump was mulling this executive order – in it’s first form, using the term “Greco-Roman” architecture to describe desirable styles – it has faced criticism. ArtNews reports, “Earlier this year, members of the Architecture Lobby, a nonprofit organization of workers, released a statement on the then-proposed order. The group’s statement reads, in part, ‘Seizing on architectural styles is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. The particular appeal to classical architecture often uses the nostalgic appropriation of style by fictionalizing national heritage and manufacturing an ideal subject to marginalize and other, while simultaneously claiming moral superiority.’
The Architecture Lobby’s statement goes on to say, ‘Neoclassicism in the US is directly related to the construction of whiteness. It was whiteness that was sought after in the many plantation houses that chose the style, justifying it as an emulation of ancient Greek ‘culture’ to separate themselves from the Indigenous peoples whose land was stolen and the enslaved African people forced to build and work in them.’”
Because architecture often reflects the diversity of a population, it might not have the broad appeal that Trump clearly hopes to embrace. But not allowing various styles and other cultural representations would be a disservice to a varied country. To embrace only Eurocentric architecture means diminishing the value of other, less mainstream architecture, according to critics.
Is the EO Likely to Remain Unchallenged by Biden?
This seems like an executive order that President-elect Joe Biden will hope to overturn. Given the diversity of Biden’s cabinet picks and his penchant for supporting cultural causes, it’s likely that critics had pled their case against this particular executive order enough that Biden will overturn it once in office. While there is something to be said in requiring public input on building designs, it’s possible to embrace diversity of a city and cultural differences while encouraging oversight and standards.
Per ArtNews, “And, in an Art in America piece from earlier this year titled ‘Trump Can’t Make Architecture Great Again Without an Infrastructure Plan,’ architecture critic Ian Volner wrote, ‘Without even being executed—without necessarily being capable of execution—what the order does is, buy the traditionalists a little bit of public exposure, while selling the red-hat crowd something of greater value.'”