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Why the Democrats Need an Architectural Vision to Counter the Right’s

Republicans are already advancing a distinct—if ugly and tasteless—aesthetic. Biden should follow in FDR’s footsteps and create a Public Works Administration for the twenty-first century.

New Deal architects and draftsmen in 1936
In 1936, these New Deal architects and draftsmen designed homes for workers who were forced to relocate during the Great Depression.

For years, Donald Trump groused about the ugly architecture in Washington. And then, in December, in the waning days of his presidency, he handed down the “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture” executive order, decreeing that all new federal construction adhere to a traditional, classicist aesthetic. If Trump had had his way, the FBI would have moved from its appropriately treacherous and looming brutalist building into a neo-Palladian nightmare with monumental columns and a gold interior spray-painted to look like Versailles.

In February, President Joe Biden quietly revoked the order. But Trump may have been onto something; he understood that architecture plays a major part in cultural identity and statecraft. Biden should be taking notes. With his $2 trillion infrastructure plan comes an opportunity to reshape the American landscape and build a monument to a new era—not just with bridges and roads, but with homes, schools, and childcare facilities. The staggering American Jobs Plan includes funds to “build, preserve, and retrofit” more than two million homes and commercial buildings, modernize schools, and upgrade hospitals. That’s a massive architectural undertaking, unparalleled since the mid-century. If Biden’s goal is to restore faith in the government as an institution that exists to lift up its citizens, not hinder them, he can do it with architecture.

For inspiration, he need look no further than the New Deal. When Franklin Roo­sevelt created the Public Works Administration in 1933, he effectively reimagined public building. It put an emphasis on regionalism, honoring the people who would use the schools and auditoriums it built, while forging a strong but understated federal style that mixed modern and classical aesthetics, from the colonial architecture of New England to the Mission style of California to the fad for art deco ornamentation. The goal was not flashiness but impregnability, infrastructure that would last as long as the republic that built it, a monument to the politics FDR pioneered.

After Trump’s attempt to force a gauche neoclassicism on Washington, Biden may instinctively reject any effort to embrace a national architectural style; most recent presidents, after all, have adhered to the guiding principles New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan drafted for JFK in 1962, discouraging the use of an “official style.” But it is worth asking how Biden can create a visual language that resonates with people, that looks intentional, that feels dynamic, and that, most important, welcomes everyday Americans and celebrates the diversity of a nation too often at war with itself. If he’s serious about combating climate change, Biden could move from the current LEED standard for green building to more rigorous models of environmentalism, such as the Passivhaus system developed in Germany, which can reduce the energy consumption of a building by as much as 90 percent. Or he might look for inspiration elsewhere in Europe: A few years ago, the city of Bordeaux commissioned the architectural firm Lacaton & Vassal to transform a 1960s social housing block into sensitive, modernist dwellings. Considering the fact that in D.C. alone, about one-third of the public housing stock is unfit for habitation, such an approach is certainly worth considering.

The stakes are far too high for Biden to ignore, because the right is already taking steps to advance a distinct aesthetic of its own. In April, when Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar formed the America First Caucus, their manifesto called for “European architecture” as “classically beautiful” as the aqueducts and roads of ancient Rome, a dog whistle for the white supremacists who have appropriated Roman history.

Biden’s problem is that, right now, the system is not set up to facilitate a unified architectural vision. The federal building process is, to put it bluntly, complex and decentralized, involving almost every agency under the sun, from the General Services Administration to the Army Corps of Engineers to the Commission of Fine Arts in D.C. proper. But Biden could reinstate the PWA—and, just as Roosevelt did, enlist small-town architects and bigger firms to design buildings around the country. He is sitting on an untapped pool of creative thinkers who would like nothing more than to shape the public spaces of the future, from schools to office buildings. Why not put them to work?