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“Draft Executive Order Would Give Trump a New Target: Modern Design”

New York Times 

Dateline: Washington D.C.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

WASHINGTON — Should every new government building in the nation’s capital be created in the same style as the White House?

A draft of an executive order called “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” would establish a classical style, inspired by Greek and Roman architecture, as the default for federal buildings in Washington and many throughout the country, discouraging modern design.

The order, spearheaded by the National Civic Art Society, a nonprofit group that believes contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing,” would rewrite the current rules that govern the design of office buildings, headquarters, and courthouses, or any federal building project contracted through the General Services Administration that costs over $50 million.

“For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings,” Marion Smith, the group’s chairman, wrote in a text message. “This executive order gives voice to the 99 percent — the ordinary American people who do not like what our government has been building.”

Wait! What?

My initial response–published in the NYT comments section of the article–was this:

"What a great idea! Next, we should propose that all Federal writings should be done in the manner of that which the Founding Father's used, with Ss that look like Fs. We need to do away with future simple, clear English. Same art. Only art Romanticism of the late eighteenth century need apply. Or, better yet, let's try a combination of that style and Nationalistic approaches that so many of the president's buddies prefer.) Military bands will now only play music from that same early time. Forget Sousa. 

“But wait. The architectural style being pushed now is a FAKE style; not even American. It is a derivative, and a poor one, of Greek temple style. We know how that ended. While most Federal architecture represented in its many office buildings are generally pretty poor, this order could set a new low, low standard of design. Some of the best Federal architecture has been the last few decades’ encouragement of good, contemporary design. So sad.

“Maybe we could now discuss how we want our Federal employees to dress. I would think the late eighteenth century would be a good look on the president. No more red ties, for one thing.”

My brother Mark’s comments were this: “… the last time a government-mandated a return to Greek classical architecture was Nazi Germany.” And “I’m thinking about getting wood dentures…”

But, there is more. This proposed executive order would “… give President Trump broad power to make aesthetic appraisals, something critics say he knows nothing about,” says the Times. That means it is another blow to freedom of expression. Architect Roger K. Lewis: “This notion that the White House has expertise or knowledge or understanding of architecture and design sufficient to allow them to mandate that all federal buildings be classically styled is absurd.”

Even though it would only apply to buildings costing over $50 million, “…the order would only apply design rules to federal public buildings and some memorials whose designs are developed through the General Services Administration.”

The order “… also accuses the G.S.A.’s Design Excellence Program, which directs the federal government’s multibillion-dollar building program, of encouraging the proliferation of modern styles, arguing that “the federal government has largely stopped building beautiful buildings the American people want to look at or work in.”

As for the President, architects have watched his projects with a “certain degree of wariness.” “‘At one level, it’s aspirational, meant to project the wealth so many citizens can only dream of,’ the author Peter York wrote in 2017 of Mr. Trump’s style. ‘The best aesthetic descriptor of Trump’s look, I’d argue, is dictator style.’”

The National Civic Art Society, which crafted the order, “… believes contemporary architecture has “created a built environment that is degraded and dehumanizing.” He defended the order by saying Americans are in support of classical style, and that it wasn’t calling for a “rigid Neo-Classical program.” But yet the organization “… is stocked with [so-called] experts who believe it is their mission to restore classical design style as the default in American architecture.” [my brackets]

While I think there is some truth to the damage that some “styles” of contemporary architecture  have caused–few of them are good neighbors–but a blanket formula of classical styling would set back the recent advances in good urban design and contextual architecture.

“As the order works its way closer to the president’s desk, the prevailing thought among architects is that Mr. Trump’s approval of one school of architectural thought over another would create a dangerous and even cynical precedent for architects contemplating the aesthetic future of the capitol.” (NYT)

All of that aside, it is interesting how little effort has been spent on actual improvements to our environment, not only by those in power–which includes town, city, county, state, and federal entities–but how little they care about the nature of our built environment that people do actually live and look at. The proof is number seen in that a very, very, tiny percentage of al built structures are considered architecture (versus building) and even a fewer than that are actually designers of any kind.

I am starting my third reading of Jane Jacob’s classic first book of significance, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The thrust of her argument is now little we, as a species, understand about how cities become the powerful lively, thriving, and safe economic engines they are–––until we start to take them seriously–––how fast we are intent upon destroying the very underlying causes that make them what they are.

But, hey. Maybe a bunch of FAKE new Federal buildings will be just the ticket for making America great again, someday…. Make America Fake Again might be the better slogan.

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