With just a month left in his presidency and a pandemic raging across the United States, President Donald Trump has issued an executive order regarding the designs of federal buildings, making classical “and other traditional architecture” the standard style for new structures in Washington, D.C. and promoting “beautiful” exteriors for federal sites across the country. It takes particular aim at Brutalism and Deconstructivism, claiming that buildings in those styles have attracted criticism.
The order states, “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.”
The document praises ancient Greek and Roman buildings as “sturdy and useful” and disparages modern designs for federal buildings commissioned by the General Services Administration. It describes the San Francisco Federal Building, which opened in 2007 and serves as an example of deconstructivism, as being deeply unpopular among residents, who, according to the President, “consider it one of the ugliest structures in their city.” The order likewise derides Salt Lake City’s new federal courthouse, which locals view as “ugly and inconsistent with its surroundings,” the order says.
The executive order also curtails the GSA’s authority, requiring it to “seek design input from the general public and future staff of federal buildings before choosing a design” and receive recommendations from a new Council for Improving Federal Civic Architecture, Bloomberg reports.
“Encouraging classical and traditional architecture does not exclude using most other styles of architecture, where appropriate,” the order states. “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.”
Reports that the President was considering signing the order have been circulating since February. Since then, many architecture groups and other experts have raised concerns about the order. 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.”
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.”