Federal design guidelines for government buildings aren’t normally front-page news. But a draft executive order that aims to rewrite the rules for federal buildings is attracting widespread attention in architectural circles and outside them. (On these pages, Kate Wagner has already offered a well-stated case against the order.) If enacted, it would abandon the open-minded and diverse approach that has shaped federal courthouses and complexes for the past 50 years. Classical elements that draw upon Greek and Roman sources would become the default style instead.
I confess to no small amount of affection for classical designs, which makes Washington, D.C., a particularly nice place for me to live. I’ll take the gleaming edifice of the Supreme Court building over the sterile harshness of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, which houses the Department of Health and Human Services, any day of the week. That affinity is exactly why the order strikes me as a mistake—and why anyone else who appreciates those influences on American civic architecture should also oppose it.
The proposed executive order bears the title “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” a gaudy riff on Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan. It would require new federal buildings in and around Washington and federal courthouses nationwide to be classical in nature. The order takes aim at two particularly midcentury trends that dominated federal buildings in the late-twentieth century. “Architectural designs in the Brutalist and Deconstructivist styles, and the styles derived from them, fail to satisfy those requirements and shall not be used,” the order states.
For almost 60 years, the government has adopted a laissez-faire approach when it comes to designs for new federal buildings. The draft order seeks to rewrite the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture, a 1960s-era federal policy paper that explicitly renounced the idea of a specific federal style and opened the doors to new approaches. “The Guiding Principles implicitly discouraged classical and other designs known for their beauty, and declared that design must flow from the architectural profession’s reigning orthodoxy to the federal government,” the proposed order explains.
The order, if signed by Trump, would roll back that approach by constraining future federal buildings to fall within a poorly written mandate: “Architectural styles—with special regard for the classical architectural style—that value beauty, respect regional architecture, and command admiration by the public are the preferred styles for applicable federal buildings.” When renovating or altering existing federal buildings, government planners would also be required to study the feasibility of redesigning them to fit the preferred aesthetic.
News of the proposed order drew sharp criticism from the American architectural community. “President Trump, this draft order is antithetical to giving the ‘people’ a voice and would set an extremely harmful precedent,” the American Institute of Architects said in a statement. “It thumbs its nose at societal needs, even those of your own legacy as a builder and promoter of contemporary architecture. Our society should celebrate the differences that develop across space and time.”
Other critics took issue with the deeper ideological currents that the order reflected. “We have a duty to advocate for design that reflects the values of the people we serve: ALL of the people,” the National Organization of Minority Architects said in a statement. “The proposed Executive Order, if enacted, would signal the perceived superiority of a Eurocentric aesthetic. This notion is completely unacceptable and counterproductive to the kind of society that fosters justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Freedom of architectural expression is a right that should be upheld at the highest levels of government.”
Classical architecture can reflect all of these values as well. Unfortunately, misappropriating history is a common occurrence for certain portions of the American right. Historians who study the Middle Ages, for example, have often wrestled with white supremacists who deny evidence of racial and cultural minorities in medieval Europe in favor of a homogenous past that they seek to restore. After the Charlottesville protests in 2017, my colleague Jo Livingstone explained how far-right extremists draw upon a motley assortment of tropes—fierce Viking warriors, noble German knights, heroic Crusaders, and more—to create a fictive past that would legitimize the violent, bigoted present they hope to create.
The Trump administration’s design preferences appear to reflect a lesser version of this trend. Unfortunately, some critics of the proposed executive order take these false histories at face value. The New York Times editorial board, for example, denounced the move in an editorial titled “What’s So Great About Fake Roman Temples?” The newspaper blamed the move on “small-minded classicists,” arguing that while such designs may have suited the Founding Fathers, they were no longer appropriate for the country today. “Now the United States is nearly 250 years old; it no longer needs to wear borrowed clothes,” the Times wrote.
Ironically, the Times’ dismissive approach to classical architecture played into the same tropes that animate some of its worst fans. “The proposed executive order reflects a broader inclination in some parts of American society to substitute an imagined past for the complexities and possibilities of the present,” the newspaper wrote. “It embodies a belief that diversity is a problem and uniformity is a virtue.” The piece then went on to contradict itself: “How can anyone imagine that erecting knockoffs of ancient buildings from other cultures would serve to demonstrate the dignity, enterprise and vigor of our republic?”
Those sentiments betray a certain ignorance. Early American civic architecture sought to evoke ancient republican systems in a world with few other models to emulate. The founders identified more with the Rome of Cicero and Cincinnatus than the Rome of Augustus. By fashioning their public buildings along those lines, they and other early Americans sought to place themselves apart from a world where absolute monarchies and divinely ordained empires were the norm and fledging republics like the early United States were largely the exception.
Classical architecture does not have a monopoly on those values, of course. But sometimes modern designs fall short of properly conveying them in the nation’s public buildings. Take the J. Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, D.C., for example. The FBI’s current headquarters is a squat brutalist fortress that looms over Pennsylvania Avenue roughly midway between the Capitol and the White House, two neoclassical icons. Like its illiberal namesake, however, the drab concrete edifice radiates unease and distrust—a hallmark of the brooding, authoritarian style of “security architecture.”
It’s profoundly ironic that this administration wants to impose classical architecture upon the people’s buildings by executive fiat. Trump himself, after all, is largely hostile to many of the republican virtues and democratic norms that its designs hope to convey. It would be a mistake for his administration to force upon Americans a style that is supposed to dignify their right to decide for themselves. And it would be a tragedy if, in doing so, his administration’s partisan zeal for classical architecture only ended up discrediting it by association.