Nearly 10 months ago, I resigned from the board of the National Civic Art Society (NCAS) in opposition to its strategically flawed and poorly conceived effort to reform federal architecture through the blunt force mechanism of a proposed executive order, “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” I had hoped this draft executive order would fade into memory for the future good of classical and traditional architecture, for all the progress made and yet to be made toward expanding architectural education and practice to be more inclusive.
Sadly, on December 21, President Trump signed the final executive order on “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civil Architecture.” Having read it carefully, it seems a portion of my final advice to the NCAS board was adopted, but the rest was not, though who knows which hands crafted the final version. In my letter of resignation, I recommended that if the NCAS’s goal was to improve federal architecture through an executive order, it should be “an executive order for a commission on Federal architecture and that the public should have a role.” Unfortunately, the organization does not appear to have heeded my strong advice that “if an executive order is finalized which specifies anything about buildings, it should not rely on style but on design qualities that produce humane, beautiful, noble, and durable buildings.”
While the final executive order is far better written than the early draft, and while it contains noble and just aims that ought to concern all architects, the style-based criteria is antithetical to both the classical tradition and architectural quality. And the executive order as means to an end is inimical to democratic and collegial values. I regret deeply this order was put into effect. I regret and mourn the permanent damage to contemporary classicism that the issuance of an executive order has already done and will continue to do for decades to come.
I share here my letter of resignation from the NCAS board submitted February 16, 2020, to emphasize my continued opposition to any executive order that singles out any architectural style for “particular regard,” makes any architectural style the “preferred and default architecture,” or singles out for extra scrutiny any proposed building that “diverges from the preferred architecture … including Brutalist or Deconstructivist architecture or any design derived from or related to these types of architecture.” I remain opposed to the strategy of using executive orders or design rules to accomplish improvements in architecture. And I am staunchly opposed to the reduction of the value and definition of classical and traditional architecture to a mere parade of preferred styles.
As a practicing architect, educator, author, and longtime champion of the classical movement, I am opposed to treating any of my colleagues with the marginalization that the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has shown contemporary classical and traditional architects. Despite the association’s protestations that “The AIA does not, and never will, prioritize any type of architectural design over another,” it does. Browse through any issue of Architect magazine, the journal of the AIA, search any of the awards, and one will see that indeed the AIA prioritizes modernist design and almost entirely excludes contemporary classical and traditional architecture, such as the work lauded by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art or Traditional Building magazine.
To my fellow classicists, it is simply a bad and dumb strategy to shut out someone else’s views when you are in power, no matter how right you think you are. It will backfire spectacularly and only reinforces the incorrect notion that classical architecture is authoritarian.
Why am I opposed to marginalizing the views of other architects? Two reasons. First, I respect their views and their right to hold them, disagreements over which should be settled by discourse, not executive orders. Second, to my fellow classicists, it is simply a bad and dumb strategy to shut out someone else’s views when you are in power, no matter how right you think you are. It will backfire spectacularly and only reinforces the incorrect notion that classical architecture is authoritarian. Remember the whole “do unto others” thing? Well, as classicists we know we have not been happy that the Design Excellence program of the General Services Administration (GSA) has selected only a few classical and traditional proposals, so why would we want to do that in reverse to our modernist colleagues? Because we think we are right? They think they are, too. We. They. It is long past time for this back-and-forth to end. Sadly, the executive order only perpetuates it by proposing that an incomplete list of classical and traditional styles shall be preferred or default.
Now, let me deal with the elephant in the room. Is opposition to the executive order a partisan opposition to President Trump? Not for this author. For others, though, it is. Failure to be concerned about that obvious reaction is a grave error of those who spearheaded this effort. No matter how suited one may think an executive order is to effect change, no matter how correct one may think the content of this executive order is, bringing this executive order forward—one proposing classical architecture as a preferred style and labeling modernist architectures as divergent—under the patronage of a president who is beloved by white supremacists and neo-Nazis was blind and inept. Congratulations, classicists. You have given modernists a gift like no other: Classicism = White Supremacy. It does not matter that contemporary classical architects are not white supremacists or neo-Nazis. It does not matter how many times classical architects say that classical architecture is about democratic, humanist values. So long as classicists ignore the problematic associations with classical architecture, those associations will continue. Bringing this executive order forward ignored this very real problem to the detriment of contemporary classicism.
Compounding this error and giving further fodder to those architects who decry classical architecture as racist or fascist (while fully ignoring the Socialist origins of architectural modernism) is the new all-white, all-male, all-classicist Commission of Fine Arts.
Compounding this error and giving further fodder to those architects who decry classical architecture as racist or fascist (while fully ignoring the Socialist origins of architectural modernism) is the new all-white, all-male, all-classicist Commission of Fine Arts (CFA). I regret that not one of my friends and colleagues who were offered these positions had the humility or foresight to turn them down so that the CFA could benefit from diversity of opinion and experience.
Note that in all of this, I have not said that change in architecture is not needed. It is. Nor have I said that the status quo of the GSA Design Excellence program is accomplishing good results. It is not. Nor have I said that the public should not be served better by today’s architects. They should. None of these issues is at question. Nor do I question the essential value of classical and traditional architecture to the creation of new buildings and places today. The sole issue is whether one small organization should have chosen to effect change through the force of an executive order written to favor the architecture they prefer, excluding from the conversation those whose exclusionary tactics are rightfully criticized. This is not the way to change things.
I and many other architects, classicists, traditionalists, new urbanists, artists, and craftspeople have accomplished substantive change in the built environment. Through education, we have helped many learn and benefit from the wisdom of traditional building knowledge. Through practice, we have improved the built environment with beautiful, durable, sustainable buildings that serve the public well. Course by course, building by building, we have developed a vital, promising, contemporary classicism. This is change we could hardly imagine 25 years ago. Change for the better. Change not through force, but through the hard work of teaching, designing, building, writing, advocating, organizing, and showing the value of classical and traditional architecture and urbanism to today’s world.
If I have learned anything in a quarter-century of teaching classical architecture when few others were, advocating for and achieving the expanding of architectural education to diverse points of view within even mainstream modernist programs, and working for and gaining the respect of those whose opinions differ from my own, it is that none of that was accomplished by force. Respect given is respect gained. This executive order was not respectful.
I wish I could have done more to stop this unforced error from happening. “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civil Architecture” should be rescinded by President-elect Biden as soon as reasonably possible. At a minimum, sections of the order dealing with the architecture of federal buildings and sections making some styles preferred, default, or divergent should be immediately removed. Doing so would focus the order on the appropriate and just goals of beautifying our civic realm and giving the people a meaningful voice in their architecture. A commission, truly diverse in their viewpoints, should then chart a better path forward. That could accomplish lasting, valuable change.
Oh, and how about a woman or two on the CFA?
Featured image: Tuscaloosa Federal Building and Courthouse, completed in 2012 under the GSA’s Design Excellence Program and designed by Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge. Photo by Steve Mouzon.