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Winning the Federal Architecture War

Winning the war will take smart, well-tailored congressional and executive action.


Even if the recently introduced bills that would put Uncle Sam’s architectural patronage on a more classically oriented footing are unlikely to pass during the current Congress, they provide a valuable opportunity to consider how legislators, who have every reason to be concerned about the state of the nation’s civic architecture, might most effectively remedy the situation.

Proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, the bills prescribe classicism as the “default” mode for new federal architecture in our nation’s capital, and classical and traditional styles as “preferred” modes elsewhere. They call for edifices that “uplift and beautify public spaces” and are “visually identifiable as civic buildings.” They raise the bar for modernist projects on both aesthetic and structural-performance grounds, but don’t ban them.


Two issues raised by the two bills, which are identical in intent and almost identical in their specific provisions, warrant particular attention. The first involves community input in design matters, especially style, and the second the best way to implement a statute promoting the classical or traditional design of new U.S. courthouses, agency headquarters, and other important office buildings with price-tags north of $50 million. Community input is required but not spelled out in the bills, while the mode of implementation they stipulate, as noted in my last piece for The American Conservative, is questionable.

The main post office in Thermopolis, Wyoming, an elegant exercise in the Georgian manner, designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury. 1933. Credit: Jonathunder, Creative Commons

The Rubio bill requires Uncle Sam’s real estate developer and landlord, the General Services Administration (GSA), to “seek input from future users of public buildings and the general public in the community where those buildings will be located; and give the input received from the general public […] substantial consideration before soliciting an architectural firm or design style for those buildings.” Community input is a major selling point for the two bills’ proponents.

No question, future users should have a say about the design and, perhaps most importantly, functional aspects of the building they will occupy. But how do you gauge the opinions of the “general public,” especially in a big city? In a commentary about Boston’s bizarre new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta Scott King, earlier this year, I observed that

the city is the principal theater in which a civilization symbolizes itself. And as our nation’s cities increasingly fall under the sway of the politically and culturally woke, it behooves us to ponder the prospect of the American public realm being subjected to increasingly toxic levels of artistic incompetence as well as political correctness.


How can Everyman be sounded out in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, or Atlanta? How are woke activists—who will typically be unaffected by the two bills’ ban on any vested interest, professional or financial, in a given federal architectural project where input from members of the “general public” is concerned—to be overcome? How to counter leftist agitators who are not architects or builders but will eagerly subscribe to a Cornell architectural historian’s perfervid rant in reaction to a leaked draft of Donald Trump’s short-lived December 2020 executive order, “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” on which the Rubio-Banks bills are based? The professor, Samia Henni, proclaimed:

Imported by Europeans from Western Europe, [classicism] testifies to a colonial presence in a colonized territory. In addition to fortifying conservatism and Eurocentrism incarnate in U.S.-centrism, and undermining design freedom and contemporaneity, the order eulogizes the massacres of Native Americans, enslaved African people, and other oppressed communities to ultimately reinforce white supremacy.

The problem we have is that politically and culturally vocal elements of our big-city populations really don’t have much use for our country or Western civilization, and that progressive opinion, including the legacy media, shrinks from offending them when it doesn’t endorse their views. An organization like the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which opposes the Rubio-Banks bills (more on that shortly), may find ways to take advantage of this state of affairs.

How do the culturally sane carry the day? Through opinion polls? A widely publicized 2007 poll, commissioned by none other than the AIA, hardly undermines the two bills’ intent. Are polls to be GSA’s means of making sure “the general public in the community where [new federal buildings] will be located” has been taken into account? If so, would that necessarily be a good thing?

In 1901, the supervising architect of the Treasury, Uncle Sam’s top architect at the time, wrote in a report: “The experience of centuries has demonstrated that no form of architecture is so pleasing to the great mass of mankind as the classic, or some modified form of the classic…” In other words, classicism—and its regional variants, whether Spanish Colonial in the Southwest and Florida or Georgian Colonial Revival in other parts of the country—was an expression of the democracy not of the living only but also, and at least as importantly, the dead.

The Rotunda at the head of the University of Virginia's Lawn, designed by Thomas Jefferson. 1826. Credit: Aaron Josephson, Creative Commons

For the design of the most important public buildings, Thomas Jefferson looked to “the adoption of some one of the models of antiquity which have had the approbation of thousands of years.” His Capitol in Richmond was modeled on a gorgeous Roman temple in Southern France. His “academical village” in Charlottesville, at the head of whose celebrated Lawn stands a majestic building modeled on the Roman Pantheon, features a variety of porticos and other architectural elements derived from different classical eras, with one of his pavilions displaying the influence of an innovative latter-day Frenchman, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806). Jefferson’s “village” was intended, among other things, as an outdoor classroom for the instruction of future architectural patrons.

Classicism was not a closed system for Jefferson, and it shouldn’t be for us. Of course, that hasn’t prevented the University of Virginia’s architecture faculty from questioning perpetuation of the institution’s classical architectural tradition on the grounds it was “inaugurated at a time when racial, gender, economic, and social diversity were less welcome.” Yet wokesters haven’t prevented UVA from undertaking a major classical renovation of its main library that is scheduled for completion in the fall. The project involves demolition of a conspicuously depressing 1960s modernist addition. But then UVA is itself a woke institution. Any cultural policy adopted by conservatives is bound to attract concentrated fire from the left and its community organizers.

It is impossible to predict how big a problem this might be, but it is one that should be anticipated, along with the reality that our big cities—and plenty of smaller ones, too, like Richmond, Virginia—are bastions of social and cultural anomie. And this potential problem raises a larger question, the question of authority.

It is important to bear in mind that community input was essentially irrelevant to the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Kennedy administration aide, drew up in 1962. The key passage in that short document, which the AIA and its GSA pals would like to give the force of law via a bill surrealistically entitled the “Democracy in Design Act,” reads: “The development of an official style must be avoided. Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.” The Guiding Principles thus empowered an academically indoctrinated modernist elite untrammeled by the nation’s classical civic-art heritage. The result has been decades of deplorable architectural patronage, and the so-called Design Excellence Program GSA launched in 1994 hasn’t really changed the picture.

Early this month, the AIA predictably denounced the Rubio-Banks bills. A press release quoted a member of the AIA’s board of directors as saying, “To mandate in federal law a preferred or default architectural style would eliminate community-centered decision making, peer review, and architectural skill.” Evidently, he hadn’t gotten around to reading a June report from the Government Accountability Office, “GSA Should Include Community Input Requirements to Help Fulfill Design Excellence Program Goals.” It is precisely the lack of “community-centered decision making” GAO highlights in its report:

GSA officials raised particular concerns [during discussions with the GAO] that it may be difficult to obtain consensus from the community on the architectural style of [a] building [design].

They also stated that the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture make it clear that building design should flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa, and that the Design Excellence Program confirms the architect’s central role in building design.

The Wayne Lyman Morse U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Oregon, designed by Thom Mayne. Credit: Taylor Lednum/GSA

GSA’s own lack of confidence in public acceptance of the monstrosities it has too often commissioned, such as the Wayne Lyman Morse U.S. Courthouse (2006) in Eugene, Oregon, is noteworthy. Even so, our deeply entrenched cultural elite has always been aware of the unpopularity of modernist architecture. Modernism across the board is predicated on the notion of an artistic vanguard that’s way out in front of the clueless masses. Accordingly, modernists have done the long march through the institutions, taking control of museums’ curatorial departments, architecture schools, art history departments, public art and architecture review boards, many historic preservation review boards, plus the legacy media and prestigious institutions such as the American Academy of Arts and Letters. These people are resourceful, and they will look for ways to game the “community input” criterion, especially in larger cities.

The GAO report also provides detailed information on the insular, community un-centered Design Excellence process by which GSA approves architectural plans. It recommends that GSA update the program’s procedures “to include requirements for obtaining and considering community input on building design, including architectural style.” GSA boss Robin Carnahan has agreed to do so, but skepticism is warranted.

The AIA, by the way, averred in the aforementioned press release that “it has been the tradition of the Design Excellence Program to consider the culture, geography, climate, and input of the people living in the communities where the project is built.” Sure. Too bad AIA big-wigs can’t be compelled to camp out in the spacious atrium of the largely glass-curtain-walled Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse (2000) in Phoenix, where temperatures have exceeded 110 degrees day after day of late. Even in the absence of such torrid heat waves, summer temperatures in the atrium have been known to soar into the upper 90s. In short, the building is grossly ill-suited to the geography and climate of Phoenix. But it was designed by a top-drawer modernist, Richard Meier, and that’s what counts for the folks at GSA and the AIA. In this case, one strongly suspects GSA officials would have had every reason to doubt their ability “to obtain consensus from the community” in favor of Meier’s ludicrously ill-conceived design.

The Sandra Day O'Connor U.S. Courthouse in Phoenix. Credit: United States Courts

As I noted last month, both the Rubio and Banks bills provide for a Council on Improving Federal Civic Architecture. It would essentially ride herd on GSA, and Rubio’s bill would even empower the council, during its five-year existence, to act as a review board for projects coming within its purview. In both bills the council includes the chair of the Commission of Fine Arts, along with living former CFA chairs willing to serve, the CFA’s secretary, the architect of the Capitol or a designee, plus GSA’s public buildings service commissioner and chief architect. Rubio’s council would also include up to ten congressionally-appointed individuals. Maybe the calculus here is that when these bills or something like them becomes law, Republicans will be in a position to ensure the council’s labors are guided by a traditionally-oriented majority. That’s a risky bet.

The Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth has recently written of “cunning [administrative state] bureaucracies that misrepresent what they are doing and outfox congressional oversight.” GSA operates on that wavelength and the proposed council could lead to a similar result. Days after President Biden’s inauguration, GSA showed its true colors and gamed the Trump executive order, which was still in effect, by approving an anemic modernist design for a boxy U.S. courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, modernist boxes being a specialty of the good people at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. In their words, “The [Fort Lauderdale] courthouse’s exterior will consist of fluted panels of metal and glass that are a contemporary interpretation of Corinthian columns…” They might as well be contemporary interpretations of corrugated tin roofs.

A much better alternative to the proposed council would be simple statutory guidelines prescribing classicism in its various stylistic manifestations as Uncle Sam’s default mode of building, with rigorous design review entrusted to the appropriate congressional committees—which should, in turn, draw on the expertise of the nation’s growing ranks of classical practitioners. Established classical designers, including professors of classical architecture at institutions such as the Catholic University of America and the University of Notre Dame, could serve these committees as consultants, while graduate students might serve as interns. Congressional Republicans, in other words, should be thinking about adding little counter-GSAs to committee staffs. And if they’re in the majority, and GSA approves bad designs for federal buildings, funding should be denied.

No question, there would be considerable incompatibility between the buildings funded by Democratic and Republican Congresses under a classically-oriented statute. Long beholden to modernist elites, Democrats will see to it that “classical” absurdities like the Fort Lauderdale courthouse get the green light. Even so, Republicans would be identifying themselves with the aspiration to build on one of the glories of our nation’s cultural heritage, while Democrats would, in all likelihood, identify themselves with building on decades of cultural dysfunction. Public opinion would benefit from the contrast. Some Democrats might, too.

So maybe the bottom line, and the answer to both issues raised at the outset of this post, is that legislators should be careful about requiring deference to community input on matters of style. Nor should they muddy the waters by lending “preferred” status to a smattering of non-classical traditional styles of limited relevance to federal architecture, past or present, as I noted last month.

Perspective view of the design of a Fort Lauderdale U.S. Courthouse approved by GSA early in 2022. Credit: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

If Republicans want structures “visually identifiable as civic buildings,” they should call for classical buildings, not buildings that evoke Romanesque churches, Gothic college dormitories, or Pueblo Revival hostelries. Moreover, Congress exists to speak and act for the people, and they should insist on its authority to promote the architectural improvement of the nation’s public realm. They should also emphasize the classical ideals of Washington and Jefferson, who did not need to resort to community input, let alone opinion polls. Republicans should also insist on countering the administrative state by bolstering Congress’s own ability to draw on the architectural expertise it needs to keep GSA’s arrogant and, in many cases, incompetent apparatchiks in line.

And when the legacy media attempts to distract attention from the cultural importance of the Rubio-Banks initiative by flagging Georgia’s colorful Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as a co-sponsor of the Banks bill, let’s not forget Joe Biden’s April appointment of Lady Gaga as co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. We do live in strange times.


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